9/5/14

The Interestings: Good, but not Great

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THE INTERESTINGS  (2013)
Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Books, 480 pages, 978-159488399
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Entertainment Weekly Magazine proclaimed The Interestings one of the best novels of 2013. That's quite an exaggeration in a year in which its list did not include The Goldfinch, which just happened to win the Pulitzer Prize! But one can certainly understand why the editors of a pop culture magazine would like it. The novel's major characters were born in 1960, which technically makes them Baby Boomers, but these are kids for whom the mythical 60s were pass√© before they got out of grade school. They talk about the 60s, but as parrots mouthing lines from their parents and TV. In actuality, their blossoming values owe more to the Stoicism-meets-pragmatism-and-materialism of the emerging generation. In fact, you might want to think of the last half of The Interestings as Doug Coupland's Generation X grown up–a bit like some of those on recent EW boards.

The Interestings opens in 1974, when Jules Jacobson finds herself at the Spirit of the Woods summer camp. She's a gawky, frizzy-haired, Jewish middle-class kid amidst the spawn of the rich and would be the proverbial fish out of water if she had the faintest clue of who she was in the first place. Her forays among the rich and beautiful convince her that she wants to escape the bourgeois 'burbs but as projectiles go, she's more sponge than skyrocket. At the camp, she hangs out with five others above her socially: Jonah Bay, the son of a famous folksinger; Ash and Goodwin Wolf, well-heeled New Yorkers; Cathy Kiplinger, who yearns to be a dancer; and Ethan Figman, an imaginative but dorky-looking guy who lives in a dream world of his own invention and illustration. Jules gets by with snark and obeisance, the six dub themselves The Interestings, and they revel in pretensions of their own superiority whilst sipping vodka and Tang cocktails. Amidst the solipsism, Jules and Ash become best friends.

The book follows the six across the decades and against a (stereotypical) backdrop of the cultural markers: cults, women's liberation, Nixon's resignation, New York City's descent into near-bankruptcy, the Yuppie greed of the Reagan years, MTV, AIDS, TED-like conferences…. Personal journeys evoke the age-old question of whether it is better to flameout in youth, or to suffer the disappointments of adult life. Jules dreamed of becoming a comic actress, but instead became a psychologist married to the steady but average Dennis and wonders if she ever had any aptitude for much of anything. Cathy never became a dancer, the gifted Jonah gave up music, and the hunky Goodman's only talent was for being a jerk. There's also the frustrating question of proven soulmates who know they cannot be together, as in the case of Jules and Ethan. Ethan has become fabulously successful and rich–his boyhood fantasies converted into Matt Groening-like cartoon, TV, and film franchises. He and Ash are married and she is a successful feminist playwright. They are also best friends with Jules and Dennis, but there is an enormous wealth gap between them, which leads Jules to realize that it has always been such. An attempt of Jules and Dennis to turn back the clock is particularly poignant because we know what they do not–you can never go home again.

This is a book that probes whether or not the identities we show others are reinvention, subterfuge, or charlatanism. It is also about dreams and frustrations, social class and assumed privileges. Many reviewers, like those of Entertainment Weekly, have given it more gravitas than it deserves. Wolitzer's characters are well developed and their back stories keep our interest, but there simply aren't many layers to either. Similarly, Wolitzer's peeks into American society feel more like contrivance than relevance. The book is also relentlessly New York in its outlook–a bit like a Woody Allen script with more believable dialogue. Like an Allen movie, The Interestings is filled with delicious moments and vignettes, but its characters are hard to admire or love. They are the sorts with which we sometimes identify, but just as often want to smack with a plank. I suppose this gives the book an air of verisimilitude, so I give this book a qualified recommendation. It is a diverting read that has occasional insight, but don't buy into the hype. –Rob Weir


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