“Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.” ~Dale Carnege (maybe)
In Meg Wolitzer‘s The Interestings, six artistically inclined teenagers meet at an artsy summer camp in the 1970s and become friends for life. There is the handsome and self-assured ringleader, Goodman, who longs to build things but lacks motivation, and his brilliant and beautiful sister, Ash, star of the stage, both children of privilege. There is the dumpy genius, Ethan, a budding cartoonist. Cathy is an exceptional dancer whose developing curves seem to be warring with her talent and desires. Jonah is the sensitive soul — a guitarist and son of a famous folk singer. And then there is funny, middle class Jules, a fish-out-of-water from the suburbs among these super cool New York City kids, hoping beyond hope to be accepted into this inner circle where she clearly doesn’t belong, and who unexpectedly is. Self-dubbed “The Interestings,” they are talented and ironic and oh-so…well, interesting. But then, aren’t we all at 14?
Wolitzer then follows them as they grow up and grow old, as their relationships change even as they cling to them, as dreams are exceeded and dashed, and as tragedy competes with triumph. It’s a story that spans decades rather than plot points, and Wolitzer is a formidable writer who pulls off of task of tying it together with considerable aplomb. History itself is a strong character here, from Watergate and the AIDS crisis, to New York’s crime wave and 9/11. But the broad scope never gets tiring or boring.
Ethan becomes wildly successful as a fictional Matt Groening. In a strange pairing even to the rest of the group, Ash becomes Ethan’s wife, as well as a successful feminist theater director. Jonah surrenders his music for a career as a robotics engineer for reasons he can’t bear to tell his friends. Goodman and Cathy are involved in the central tragedy of the novel, damaging Cathy and making Goodman a fugitive. And Jules surrenders her dreams of being a comic actor for the life of a social worker, and spends many years dealing with resentment.
The themes Wolitzer tackles over the course of the nearly 500 pages are many: friendship, success, creativity, jealously and envy, striving, secrets, and finally, contentment. Perhaps the most interesting character isn’t an Interesting at all, but Jule’s husband, Dennis. Speaking about her time at Spirit-in-the-Woods camp, Dennis says:
“What do I know — maybe it actually made you special. And specialness — everyone wants it. But Jesus, is it the most essential thing there is? Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do — kill themselves?”
There are places where the story gets bogged down, where you would really like to take the characters by the shirt collar and shake them. There is a mention very late in the novel where Ethan brings up his wife’s feminism and juxtaposes it with her fierce loyalty to her brother and asks, basically, WTF? and I literally cheered that someone finally said something about this glaring inconsistency. But overall, the book is very readable not because the characters are consistent, or even interesting, but because they are human and flawed. This is not just “women’s fiction” (whatever that is); this is simply good fiction, no matter who you are.