Meg Wolitzer‘s 2013 novel The Interestings traces a group of six teenagers from their first attempts at playing cool at an arts summer camp in 1974 through to the current day. She asks, whatever became of the most talented people you once knew? They smoke pot, drink vodka, share their dreams, and within the first few pages swear they will always be interesting in that jokingly self-conscious way. Decades later how do the actress, the dancer, the musician, the animator fare?
We spend most of our time with the perspective of Jules, an awkward young girl from out of town reeling from the death of her father who finds her place with five new friends and a calling as a comedic actress at this one summer camp. The point in time is just magic as the teenagers find the place they want to be and the people to do it with. Decades later, Jules is a counsellor, Cathy has stopped dancing, Jonah no longer plays guitar, and Goodman has disappeared. Ethan and Ash, now married, are the only ones who have remained true to their adolescent dreams and become shockingly successful as well. The group’s fortunes tilt abruptly and the friendships are put under the ultimate strain of envy, disappointment, and time.
We switch back and forth between eras, from the youthful beginnings of friendship to more contemporary experiences so we see simultaneously where they’ve landed compared to where they aim for. That is not to say there is no surprises, however. Wolitzer is a master of hints and surprises, making it a compulsive read.
She also has a very tender wit and precise observation style. Jules is a fantastic narrator, and Wolitzer’s subtle adjustments between the ages of Jules as well as the brief forays into other characters’ perspectives worked well. Because really, what is this book about? It’s almost a Jonathan Franzen-style story about friends and family, just with less insufferable ego on the part of the author. It is a strong, character-driven book.
Which is why, with some plot points, I was actually disappointed by Wolitzer. Generally, it was an addictive novel, compelling and exhilarating, with complex and well-drawn characters who can both charm and disappoint: people who you can care about. Toward the end however Wolitzer has made certain choices about the story line that almost made me close the book and leave it there. They felt unnecessary, untrue to the characters she had built so well over the last few hundred pages, and I completely emotionally checked out.
I did finish the book, and most of it was a wonderful experience. Wolitzer is emotionally intelligent, smart and funny, and almost all of The Interestings is a great read. Because this is not a story about trying and failing or trying and succeeding; this is a story about friendship, connection, community and time; a story about characters.