Before picking this novel up from a clearance shelf at BAM on a whim, I had never heard of Meg Wolitzer or any of her books. After doing some research, I found out she's been a published writer since the early '80s and has several books to her name. This review is going to focus on one of her recent novels-- The Interestings.
The Interestings is about six artistically gifted teenagers who meet at a summer camp called Spirit-In-The-Woods in the summer of 1974. The character we see the most of, Jules, is probably the least "artsy" (it's never thoroughly explained why she came to the camp in the first place, and it was only after becoming friends with these kids that she developed any interest at all in acting) but she becomes part of the group by being funny and awkward and an all-around nice girl. I didn't see any of these characteristics in her -- she was never funny or awkward, and she spent most of her time envying what the others had, even into adulthood -- but Wolitzer insists via the other characters that Jules is simply amazing.
In case you can't tell, I didn't like this girl. I thought she was a bore and completely selfish in almost every way. This book examines the lives of these six people throughout their teen, young adult, and middle-aged years, and there is never a time when she doesn't put herself first. As an adult, she has a steady career as a therapist and is adored by her clients. She has a strong, easy-going husband who loves her and always tries putting her first despite his own struggles with atypical depression. Still, she hardly ever shows gratitude for these things and can only see the negatives in life -- why are some of her childhood friends rich and famous while she's stuck in a boring career and married to a boring guy with a boring child? Frankly, reading almost everything from Jules's point of view was tedious and one of the biggest downfalls of the book.
Luckily, most of the other lead characters are at least a little more interesting. My favorite character was Jonah, one of the six from the camp who must deal with his own homosexuality as well as getting over traumatic events that happened to him earlier in life-- events that almost stripped him from the inside out of any desire to pursue artistic endeavors of his own. Ethan and Ash, two other teens from camp, grow up and get married. Ash directs feminist plays and Ethan creates a Simpsons-like show called Figland, which is headed into its 25th year on the air when we are first introduced to these characters as adults. So most of the character Wolitzer has created work-- the main character being the exception, of course.
This novel is, more than anything, a reflection on art and friendship and the ways those two things can help us get up and over. It's a statement on growing up. It's a statement on mattering. It's a statement on being remembered, loved, and cherished. On the whole, I'm glad I read it. If it weren't for the horrible main character and Wolitzer's occasional tendency to say in twenty words what could be said in seven, this would be a 5-star novel. This novel follows the characters through the '80s, '90s, and '00s, all while feeling real and decidedly non-hokey-- a feat not easily accomplished, but in this story it is handled quite well. It's a shame the author didn't use her extraordinary sense of time and locale more and instead focused on the internal musings of a character who is almost impossible to care about.
Part historical fiction, part coming of age novel, Wolitzer's The Interestings is a, well, interesting -- albeit flawed -- read and it's a journey I don't regret taking.