In 1974, six teenagers meet at an arts camp in the Berkshires. The privileged brother and sister duo, Ash and Goodman Wolf, are at the center of the group. Cathy Kiplinger is the sexy dancer who’s attending camp on scholarship; she and Goodman have a passionate and sometimes explosive fling going on. Jonah Bay is the quiet son of a famous folk singer, and Ethan Figman is a talented young animator. Rounding out the group is Jules Jacobson, a plain and awkward girl from Long Island who’s mourning the recent death of her father. She doesn’t know how or why this glamorous and talented group decided to invite her into their fold, but they did. The Interestings, as they dub themselves that summer, become inseparable and will continue to meet at the palatial Wolf residence in Manhattan when summer comes to an end. Some of the group will become closer as they age, while a couple will drift off, but they’ll be linked for the rest of their lives.
One of the central questions that Wolitzer explores in the book is, what happens to talent as one gets older? Generally speaking, most people don’t go on to make a successful career of the talents they were praised for as teenagers. It’s a lesson that the book’s central character, Jules, struggles to cope with all the way through middle age. While her dear friends Ethan and Ash make it to that rare stratosphere of fame and fortune, Jules own talents don’t translate as well to adulthood and she’s forced to find a new direction in life. Her happiness for her friends’ success aside, jealousy is always bubbling just beneath the surface.
Nostalgia is another topic that the book scrutinizes. Jules looks at her summers with The Interestings through rose colored lenses. Nothing in her adult life can compare to their supposedly perfect time at camp, and it blinds her to the way she and her friends really are. Spoilerish (highlight to read): At one point, after letting Jules uproot their lives in order to chase this elusive magical past, her fed up husband finally bursts out that The Interestings “aren’t that interesting!” Meanwhile, the world is moving on around them: the mysterious AIDS epidemic is terrifying people, advances are being made in technology, people are getting married and starting families. Even within their own little microcosm, the group must deal with reality: some must face things that happened in the past, while others are going through physical and mental health scares in the present.
The Interestings is comprised of a lot of the mundane events related to everyday life. Most of it unfolds slowly over the course of several decades. In a lot of ways, The Interestings is what I wish Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot had been: both are domestic, meandering novels that explore similar themes. They’re both more about the process than the end result. But where Eugenides failed to fully develop his characters (especially his female ones), Wolitzer shines, giving the core group of friends a complex background — it’s one of the main reasons why the book is so long. She doesn’t develop a couple of The Interestings nearly as much, but that is for a reason I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler. I’ll just say Wolitzer made wise choices in the way she developed (or didn’t develop) her book.
The Interestings isn’t for everyone; I suspect there are many out there who, in addition to being frustrated with the slow pace, would also find some of the characters terribly obnoxious. (If you hate the domestic dramas written Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen — and many do — I think it’s safe to say that The Interestings probably isn’t for you.) But so far, this has been one of my favorite books of 2013. It’s a sweeping, beautifully crafted character study that is very much based in truth.
The Interestings was published in April 2013 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin.