The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I first heard of Meg Wolitzer when her novel The Uncoupling came out a few years ago. I added the book to my wishlist and quite forgot about it for some time. However, with the release of her latest novel, The Interestings, I saw some of my favourite bloggers review it and decided to give it a go. So, I asked the publisher for a review copy and they kindly sent me a beautiful paperback.

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From Goodreads:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Reading The Interestings was a very interesting process indeed. For a start, the main characters were born the same year my parents did, so it really felt like peaking through a hole into their lives before they became Mom and Dad. Also, the book has some very good opening chapters and Wolitzer shows off her mastery as a writer, because whatever I say about the book, there is no doubt Wolitzer is a very talented writer.

But, The Interestings was not my kind of book. Or, I would rather say, its characters were not my kind of characters. After giving it much thought, I have decided to issue a disclaimer that could very well justify my review: the characters (from the baby boom generation born between 1946-1964) are way too different and difficult to relate to by my generation, which I have found out is call “Millennial” (born between 1980-2000) and, apparently, not much-liked. Reading about the characters in the book and thinking what I would have done I felt an immense gap and no possibility of building a bridge between us. Having said this, I am not implying that there is no way between these two very different generations to connect, I have a very healthy and understanding relationship with both my parents. But, the characters in the book did not feel like them at all.

Jules is the main character in The Interestings. An awkward, redhead teenager with a perm gone wrong who, when attending summer camp, finds herself invited to spend the night with the elite. And this is what the book is really about: Jules’ awkwardness at being considered an equal by the Manhattan jet set. Thanks to this, Wolitzer is able to explore how social class pretty much determines how people behave and what is expected of themselves. While Jules struggles with the idea of becoming an actor, her friend Ash, whose parents have money enough for her to freely explore what she is, is able to live a more relaxed and vocational life. Also, no matter what the group of friends does, Jules always feels an outsider and her envy proves to be an obstacle in her own personal and emotional development.

Just recently Mr.B&R asked me whether I wrote bad reviews about books. I stopped for some seconds before replying, because I have been very lucky with the review copies and the books that I buy or borrow. The answer is that yes, I write bad reviews if I am able to finish the book, if not, I do not think it is fair. With The Interestings, I was able to finish the book, but as the story progressed I felt more and more distance between me and the characters, especially Jules. I am a firm believer in the present and the future, because you cannot undo the past and we should focus on making the most out if of it, mistakes included, as long as we are able to leave it behind. A desire to return to the teenage golden days of the summer camp is a recurrent theme in the book and it made me angry and frustrated, since memories are so constructed and reimagined, that it is almost impossible to remember how things really were. Instead of focusing on her present life, Jules constructs a better past and loses her time wishing she could return.

What I did enjoy was Wolitzer’s take on creative people and everyday life. Almost all the characters have very strong and creative drives and they choose to deal with their talents in very different ways. One of them admits that “If creative people stop, they die” and the quote has stayed with me ever since. She also acknowledges the gap between fiction and reality, being fiction what we think our lives will be and reality how they actually turn out. We have problems, we will have even more in the future, but family and everyday life is what keeps us alive. Sex, gender, sexuality and social class will be some of the most important factors that will decide the problems we will face and how we will react to them. But, like Wolitzer put it: “Sometimes you just have to trick yourself a little.” And that is how things work out: by tricking ourselves with routines, jobs, family, art and entertainment. Don’t we?

So, this Millennial does not know what to make of The Interestings. Or maybe it has nothing to do with my generation. I really do not know. What I do know is that I will read more of Wolitzer’s works, because the prose was masterfully written.

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4 thoughts on “The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

  1. Leah says:

    Oh, I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this one! I didn’t sense a generational disconnect with this book, and I loved the way Wolitzer wrote about adult friendship, creativity, and jealousy/envy.

    I think you might like The Wife better, if you still want to read Wolitzer. It has a lot of parallels to The Bell Jar that I think you would enjoy.

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    • Elena says:

      Two years later, I just discovered I never replied to you, Leah! I’m sorry about it. I have read now another book that is similar to Wolitzer but even better. I’ll keep you posted x

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  2. Rebecca says:

    So I’m commenting late because this popped up as a suggestion to your latest post, and I felt a little disconnected too though I’m closer in age to the characters than you. I tend to like some Wolitzer characters and not others in lots of her books, and the same was true in this one. I read this maybe 6 months ago so my memory is not the best, but I remember feeling that a lot of the characters felt real. I think it’s because we followed their lives and their disappointments over such a long time that they felt real. The older brother who disappears felt the flattest.

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    • Elena says:

      And I’m very happy you’re commenting, Rebecca! Thanks 🙂

      It’s been almost two years since I read The Interestings and I thought I could give it another try, but I sadly gave it to a great friend of mine (a Gen-X one) because I thought she would enjoy it.

      Stay tuned this week for my review of Modern Lovers by Emma Straub, because it felt very similar to The Interestings, yet different. I think you’d like it.

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