I was first charmed by Meg Wolitzer's writing in my early twenties. Having recently been cast into a world of college courses and first professional jobs, I loved Wolitzer's The Position because it invoked the tight-knit family dynamics and quirkiness of childhood that I so sorely missed at that time. Wolitzer's niche is in novels that explore friendships and relationships across time, and her latest, The Interestings, digs deep into that niche to explore questions about love, art, youth and aging.
The Interestings opens in Spirit-in-the-Woods, a summer camp for young artist types. Most of the campers, like Ash and Goodman, are children of wealthy New Yorkers. Still others, like Jonah, are the children of folk singers, or simply middle-class kids, like Jules and Ethan, who are attending camp on a scholarship. Despite their differences, they all share that dreamy, self-involved mental fog that so often plagues adolescence. The magic truly begins as this troop of teenagers disperses into the world and on the longer narratives of their post-teenage lives. Some of them become wealthy, some have second careers, and some make irreparable mistakes. Each one of them changes in fundamental ways, and yet, they also are consistently true personalities that just grow brighter and clearer with each page. Wolitzer balances a consistency in the characters while they adapt to the many challenges that they face in their adult lives. She does so with enormous grace, creating a novel that truly feels like it has a complete cast rather than a leading protagonist.
United by their folksy, back-to-nature experience at Camp Spirit-in-the-Woods, all the characters begin the story with art being integral to their identity. Some keep this sense of self, while others move away from it for other pursuits. Much of the novel contends, therefore, with this variation on the artist's journey. Wolitzer shows that much of an artist's life is influenced by the formative post-college years. This is when the artistic lives of Jules, Ash, Ethan, and others are dramatically altered.
Ultimately, however, The Interestings is about friendship in all its beauty and horror: a pretty and wealthy friend is envied despite her kindness and generosity. A deeply moral artist can't bring himself to care for his autistic child. A horrible occurrence between a boyfriend and girlfriend goes unresolved. A horrified wife prays for her husband to live, only to later question if she still wants him in her life.
Wolitzer is a master at showing the effect of time on her characters. She writes for the reader who wants to sink fully into a person's life, seeing every intimate detail, no matter how private or how unsavory. The Interestings romps through lifespans in the manner of a John Irving or Charles Dickens novel. The signature that makes it uniquely Wolitzer is that it is written with an eye towards the group. Wolitzer weaves together multiple lives, not simply of a family or a select few, but the lives of a group of friends. She effortlessly moves from one person's childhood, to another's present day, and to another's memory from summer camp.
Wolitzer's ability to take a moment, whether it be a campfire surrounded by 15-year-old girls or a first kiss, and spin it out into a dozen different directions across multiple lives is the true genius of the book. The Interestings reminds readers to pause amidst their crowd of dear ones and try to imagine the far-flung futures of these people who are otherwise bound together by love.
This review was originally published in April 2013, and has been updated for the March 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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