The Interestings (2013)

by Meg Wolitzer

A girl from Long Island is inexplicably welcomed into the clique of five more wordily teenagers from Manhattan at a summer arts camp in 1974. Jules Jacobson, changing her name from the mundane Julie to feel less like a unsophisticated outsider, is launched on a lifelong ambition to live up to the group’s self-chosen name: “The Interestings.”

Meg Wolitzer’s ninth novel details the next nearly four decades of the group’s members, among whom Spirit-in-the-Woods camp instilled a lasting connection and in one—protagonist Jules—a chronic yearning. Only Ethan, a brilliant animator, would succeed spectacularly, and only Goodman Wolf would end up a loser. The others would occupy that middle ground that is the niche of most of us who don’t have an incredible talent. Ordinariness is dissatisfying to Jules, particularly when she compares herself with the spectacular wealth of Ethan and his wife, Ash, another of The Interestings, Goodman’s sister, and Jules’s best friend.

Wolitzer relates the individual histories against the backdrop of historical references, suggesting she intends her characters to represent their generation. Jules gives up her notion of acting, becames a social worker, and marries an ultrasound technologist who suffers from depression; they are never financially comfortable. Ethan’s money and reputation probably help along Ash’s moderate success as a playwright. Goodman lives in pathetic exile in Iceland, having fled there to escape trial on the charge of raping another member of the group, Cathy, who drops out of the picture. Having had his songs ripped off at age 11 when a friend of his folksinger mother drugged him, Jonas abandons his musical talent and becomes a successful but unfulfilled engineer.

The novel is full of astute observations about envy, relationships, talent, career ups and downs, money, success, and what makes life satisfying. Despite a sad ending, it is warm-hearted and hopeful, with a couple of the characters breaking through longstanding emotional blocks. Near the conclusion Jules and her husband, Dennis, give up their jobs to be 50-year-old camp directors of Spirit-in-the-Woods. Jules realizes not only that she can’t reenact The Interestings but that being interesting isn’t a standard for living or evaluating one’s life.


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