Meg Wolitzer follows a group of teenagers from art camp on to adult life, with all its successes and disappointments.
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Aspects of "The Interestings" strike familiar chords. After all, there's nothing new about a group of teens, intoxicated with their recent discovery of irony and wry wit, "gathering because the world was unbearable, and they themselves were not." Wolitzer captures the cocky "assumption of eventual greatness" that draws them together, before they are knocked down several pegs by often sobering realities: financial and romantic woes, lives poleaxed by illness, developmental disabilities, self-destructive siblings, and deaths that strike out of nowhere.Skip to next paragraph
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At the center of "The Interestings" is Julie Jacobson, who quickly morphs into the far edgier "Jules." This aspiring comic actress and "short-sedered Jew" attends the hippie-inflected Spirit-in-the-Woods arts camp in Massachusetts on scholarship the summer after her father dies at 42 of pancreatic cancer. The lone middle-class Long Islander among more sophisticated New Yorkers, Jules never quite shakes the sense that she's an outsider. It's a feeling that's later exacerbated by her choice of husband (an ultrasound technician) and fallback career (social work therapist), though the enduring friendships she makes in overheated Teepee 3 during her first summer at camp change her life irrevocably.
Among the Interestings are beautiful, rich Ash Wolf, an aspiring stage director, and her handsome, arrogant ne'er-do-well brother, Goodman, whose parents' sprawling Central Park West apartment becomes the group's off-season headquarters and a seductive home-away-from-home for those from less robust families. These include the talented gay son of a famous Joan Baez–like folksinger who's been traumatized by one of his single mother's colleagues, and the homely but extraordinarily gifted cartoonist Ethan Figman, the only child of perpetually squabbling divorced parents.
Along with the unpredictability of converting talent into success, Wolitzer explores the baffling arbitrariness of physical attraction. Jules repeatedly rejects Ethan's advances, though they bond as soul mates for life. Wolitzer explains, "She'd valued him highly, but she just hadn't wanted him." It's a decision Jules often thinks about – especially after he turns his attentions to Ash and becomes fabulously rich from his "Simpsons"-type animated television show, "Figland," and again when life with her cuddly bear of a husband is most severely tested – but never really regrets.
"The Interestings" is anchored in details like the Chicken Marbella everyone cooked in the early 1980s, and rich in ethical discussions about entitlement, child labor, sexist attitudes toward rape, and women's limited power in the theater world. Its many subplots take us to Iceland, a Moonie farm in Vermont, a factory in Jakarta that manufactures licensed Figland products, and a conference of movers and shakers in Napa, California. It stresses the importance of "doing what you love" but also of doing what's needed in the world.