The principals in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings are only in their mid-teens when they decide to give themselves the label of the title, hoping the nickname will stick for life.
BY MEG WOLITZER
Chatto & Windus, 468pp, £16.99
She introduces them at a bohemian summer camp north of New York and lets them indulge their preening vanity to the fullest. “I’m beginning to think I feel too much,” a girl named Ash writes in her journal. “The feelings flood into me like so much water, and I am helpless against the onslaught.”
Ash and her brother, Goodman, disagree vehemently about whether Anaïs Nin or Günter Grass is God. The wit in the group, Ethan Figman, wonders whether umlauts aren’t what make Nin and Grass so special. “I’m going to get one for myself,” Ethan says.
Wolitzer could make chalk-on-a-blackboard screeches with too much of this affectation. But there’s something funnily incongruous about young New Yorkers going through their growing pains in rustic teepees. And there’s something intrinsically sad about this novel too. Right from the start its heroine, Julie Jacobson, is renamed Jules by her fellow campers and feels excitingly like a completely reinvented person. She also discovers irony, which “was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit.”
The story of Jules and her friends begins with both high hopes for their teenage summers and wistfulness over how they will evolve over time. But the book treats time as something gelatinous and moves through it with great difficulty. It seems to take the Interestings forever to get out of their beloved camp even though they spend only a couple of formative, flirtatious summers there. Even near the end of this story one adult ex-camper is still mooning about his first impression of Jules.
Only three things seem preordained about the Interestings’ future: that Ethan is a gifted cartoonist and filmmaker with commercially viable talent; that boys in the story will think wistfully of Jules as the girl who got away; and that Jonah, the son of a famous female folk singer, will have trouble escaping his mother’s shadow. Wolitzer gives Jonah’s mother the long black hair and pristine voice of Joan Baez, but she uses cultural touchstones while sometimes fudging specifics.
Jules is the book’s centre not only because Wolitzer anoints her as such, but also because she winds up leading a tamer life than the others do. Ethan and Ash pair off as a semi-incestuous couple. Then they become very rich because Ethan creates a popular long-running animated series in which he does several characters’ voices.
Goodman, Ash’s wild-card brother, is accused of an act so heinous that he is forced to disappear. Jonah comes to terms with being gay at the start of the AIDS epidemic. But all Jules does is marry out of her group of friends. Her husband, Dennis, is more working class and less indulgent. He is also dangerously depressed.
Wolitzer periodically rekindles the ancient attractions that bind this crew together. She also touches on the economic awkwardness brought on by Ethan’s windfall. Ethan is eager to travel with Jules and Dennis and to augment their income, but Dennis finds such gestures insulting. Wolitzer certainly does an expert job of charting the incremental changes in Ash and Ethan, as Ash indulges her girlhood ambitions for a career in theatre, which are more easily realised than they might have been without her husband’s money.
Ash and Ethan send out virtuous-sounding Christmas letters that infuriate their old friends. And they find that parenthood is a great equalizer. Wolitzer is especially savvy about what the arrival of children does to longtime friendships.
The big questions asked by The Interestings are about what happened to the world (when, Jules wonders, did “analyst” stop denoting Freud and start referring to finance?) and what happened to all that budding teenage talent.
Might every privileged schoolchild have a bright future in dance or theatre or glass- blowing? Meg Wolitzer hasn’t got the answers, but she does have her characters’ mannerisms and attitudes down cold.
• Meg Wolitzer is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 13 August