Book review Tuesday: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings last night and was so bummed out by both the ending and my own reaction to the book that I immediately had to start something more upbeat (in this case, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which is excellent so far) in order to take my mind off of The Interestings before going to sleep. And now I need to figure out whether I liked or disliked this book, because it could go either way.
This was one of those books, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, about which I had heard a tremendous amount of buzz before I read it. However, unlike AVFTGS, I didn’t put off reading this one until everyone and their mother had read it. Instead, I snapped it right up onto my Kindle shortly after it came out. However, all of the aforementioned buzz was both a blessing and a curse in terms of my enjoyment of this book. At first, I had read and heard only positive reviews. This novel had been compared to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and, well, they had me at Eugenides. Barrie Hardymon, a guest contributor on one of my favoritest podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, raved about the book, and I tend to like her suggestions, so all systems were go. And, indeed, as soon as I started reading this book, I loved it. And then, along the way, things started to change.
First, a very brief plot summary of the book: the story starts off at a summer camp for the arts in the Berkshires in 1974. A group of smart, privileged teenagers who enjoy, variously, music, pretentious literature, animation, drama, and weed, come together as friends and deem themselves “The Interestings.” (This opening, while obnoxious, nonetheless rings true, because don’t all teenagers labor under the delusion that they and their friends are The Most Interesting People in the World?) The novel then traces the lives of these five friends — Jules, Ethan, Ash, Goodman, and Jonah — over the next forty-odd years, as some excel and others flounder.
This book has a lot of great stuff in it. I bookmarked so many passages on my Kindle that I can hardly choose which ones to share, because Wolitzer’s observations about life are all so on-the-nose. I read several reviews that describe this novel as “astute,” and that’s a perfect word to use; Wolitzer, through her prose, nails so many universal human experiences and emotions: jealousy, dissatisfaction, early love, sadness, euphoria, nostalgia. Wolitzer’s best observations, though, are around friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved a scene in which Jules, a character through whose perspective much of the novel is filtered, and her husband Dennis go out to dinner with their lifelong friends Ethan and Ash and another couple that Ethan and Ash are friends with. Ethan and Ash are now much wealthier than Jules and Dennis, and Jules is acutely aware of how different the two couples’ lives have become, especially when it comes to new friends.
The friends of Ash and Ethan in question had been a couple of recent friendship vintage. The husband was a portfolio manager, slightly older, and the wife was an interior designer who also ran a literacy program in East Harlem. Both of them were lithe and angled, their clothes made of linen, and the dinner that night hadn’t been awkward so much as depressing. The portfolio manager and his wife had nothing to ask Jules and Dennis. It wouldn’t have even occurred to them to ask them anything. The fact that all the interest flowed toward that couple did not seem at all unusual to them. They neutrally accepted the one-way flow, and Dennis in particular kept the conversation going, wanting to know the answers to various questions. Once again, he was interested in other people; it was an admirable quality generally, but in this case it irritated Jules, who didn’t want these people to think they should accept other people’s interest as their due. She herself, in her mild rage, began to ask them question after question. “What are the literacy rates in our country?” she drunkenly demanded of the wife. And, barely having listened to the answer, she turned to the husband and said, “Since when did ‘portfolio’ start to refer to money, not artwork? It’s like the way if someone’s an analyst, it no longer means they’re Freudian, it means they study the stock market.”
There are also a lot of trenchant observations about feminism, which are illuminated through the female characters’ struggles to find balance among career aspirations, motherhood, and marriage. I also enjoyed Wolitzer’s descriptions of the ways in which various characters reckon with their need to be — or at least, to feel — interesting, special, and unique, even into adulthood. Like I said, Wolitzer packs a lot of great stuff into this book, and manages to keep things interesting (pardon the phrasing) despite the large scope of the book (40+ years, competing plot-lines, etc.). So there’s a lot of Good here.
Now, though, we need to talk about The Bad. I made the mistake, midway through this book, of reading some more reviews, like this one from The New York Times, this one from the Washington Post, and this one from The Boston Globe. I can’t remember what compelled me to do this — I try to never read reviews when I am mid-book — but I think something must have been bothering me about the book and I wanted to suss out if I was the only one feeling the way I felt. Instead of echoing my own observations back to me, thereby affirming my experience of the novel, these reviews gave me other things to focus on. For example, the WaPost review, which was pretty harsh, noted:
So “The Interestings” gets bogged down with long-winded explications and gratuitous, self-serious and often awkwardly phrased historical references: “It would be ten years before the notorious case in which another prep-school boy attacked a girl in Central Park. . . . And it would be thirteen years before a young female investment banker out for a jog in the park at night was raped and beaten into a coma.” The writing here has all the weary cheerlessness of a participant approaching the end of an all-day charity walkathon.
Ouch. After reading that, I started to notice that, yes, Wolitzer does try to infuse the characters’ lives with historical meaning, or at least to situate every one of their life events into some larger cultural trend, which gets irritating, and feels unnecessary and forced.
But these reviews didn’t point out what bothered me most about the book, and that is the focus on the character of Jules, who Wolitzer paints as the sort-of, almost, kinda heroine of this story. I found Jules hard to take and didn’t understand, despite what I suspect was meant to be a sympathetic portrayal of her, why she had friends at all. Jules to me was grating, insecure, boring, needy, and remarkably unspecial. Even when Jules made observations that rang true to me, I attributed those observations to Meg Wolitzer rather than to Jules Jacobson, which was probably not the intent of the author. I felt that Wolitzer’s sympathies with Jules were misplaced; to me, there were far more sympathetic characters available in Ethan or even Jonah. What’s most baffling to me was the fact that Ethan Figman, the only member of the troupe of Interestings who actually met with wild success as an adult (and, arguably, was the only one ambitious or talented enough to pursue such success), carried an undying flame for Jules throughout the book. What started off as a fairly inexplicable teenage crush at camp evolved into a deeply inexplicable non-requited love into adulthood; Ethan thought Jules was just the bees knees, and I just don’t understand why. It’s like Jules is a Mary Sue but without any of the good qualities.
Finally, the book’s lumbering, depressing end, with more tragedy than was perhaps strictly necessary, left me feeling deflated. I don’t demand a happy ending from every book I read, but the ending of this book felt particularly hopeless. I like a teeny bit of redemptive hope tucked into any depressing ending, and I didn’t find that here.
Did I hate this book? No. Did I love it? Well, yes, parts of it. But overall, The Interestings was a mixed bag for me. Final verdict: I would recommend it because mostly, it was a good read. It was packed with sharp observations and the characters’ stories did carry emotional weight. But the book was unsatisfying to me in two key ways: its putative heroine, who was disappointing, and the ending, which was depressing. Still, this book made an impression on me, and the fact that I’ve written so much here trying to sort out my reactions to it is probably a sign that it’s worth picking up.