Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a book I hesitated over. On the one hand, it had a telescopic view of life, with more than thirty years of sheer life squeezed into its pages – this is a feat I am rather in awe of, as I find it a challenge to skip even a couple of years in my writing. On the other hand, it had the potentially rather annoying elitist vibe of ‘the chosen ones’ that I so disliked in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
But plunge in I finally did, and I gradually warmed to it. It’s the story of six teenagers who meet at an expensive camp for ‘artistic’ kids, who try desperately hard to be cool, to stay interesting and to follow their dreams in NYC. As we follow them over the years, we see of course that they’ve had to abandon their dreams (in some cases), that they meander down the wrong paths, take many a false turn, but in the end, most of them find their way back. Only three of the six are fully developed: geeky, talented animator Ethan, golden girl from a rich family Ash and the ‘gatecrasher’ Julie, an awkward girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who desperately wants to fit in with this privileged crowd. The other three are viewed mainly through the others’ eyes: Goodman, Ash’s brother, the charismatic leader of the pack, until his life goes badly off the rails; Cathy the dancer with the far too womanly body; and Jonah, the famous folk singer’s son, who remains friends with the main triumvirate but abandons his music. Jonah does get his own chapters and the readers has some insights into his way of thinking, but somehow he never becomes quite as alive as the first three, although in many ways he is a more tragic character than any of them.
For about the first quarter of the book, I found the privileged characters and their hangers-on pretentious and snobbish. I very nearly threw in the towel. As they grow older, however, we see the way life knocks their stuffing out of them and how they persevere, regardless, how they still support each other even though they may have grown apart.
There are similarities to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but luckily without the extremely harrowing scenes which appeared fairly regularly in that book. The friends may have subtle (or not so subtle) rivalries, may vie for attention or affection, may silently undermine each other, may feel envious of the success and money that the others have, but overall they remain supportive and invested in each other.
Ultimately, I read on, not because the Interestings themselves were so interesting, but for the observation skills of the author. This is not quite the major disappointment and death of ambition of Richard Yates: the character’s lives are full of successes as well as disappointments. The author is great at capturing those shades of envy that can creep into even the closest of friendships, and there are astute observations throughout about men and women, what makes marriages work , about growing older and abandoning your dreams (or adjusting your dreams and becoming more realistic). I enjoyed the last quarter of the book far more, especially when they try to recapture some of the magic of youth and realise that it never works. I would have liked perhaps more critique or more satire of a society that, for all of its supposed opportunities for all, is far more class-conscious than it likes to believe.
Here are some quotes that I enjoyed:
I know we live in a very sexist world, and a lot of boys do nothing except get in trouble, until one day they grow up and dominate every aspect of society. But girls, at least while they’re still girls and perform well, seem to do everything better for a while. Seem to get the attention. I always did. (Ash)
… meeting in childhood can seem like it’s the best thing – everyone’s equal and you form bonds based only on how much you like each other. But later on, having met in childhood can turn out to have been the worst thing, because you and your friends might have nothing to say to each other anymore, except, “Wasn’t it funny that time in tenth grade when your parents came home and we were so wasted.” If you didn’t feel sentimental about the past, you wouldn’t keep it up. (Jules)
The camp would go on in its own fashion, and teenagers would continue to be shepherded through the gates, and then shepherded back out again at the end of the summer, weeping, stronger. They would blow glass and dance and sing for as long as they could, and then the ones who weren’t very good at it would likely stop doing it, or only keep doing it once in a while, and maybe only for themselves. The ones who kept up with it – or maybe the one who kept up with it – would be the exception. Exuberance burned away, and the small, hot glowing bulb of talent remained, and was raised high in the air to show the world.