The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer follows a group of teenagers from art camp on to adult life, with all its successes and disappointments.

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    The Interestings
    By Meg Wolitzer
    Penguin
    480 pp.
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Reviewed by Heller McAlpin for Barnes & Noble Review

"The past is so tenacious," the most talented of the ironically self-proclaimed "Interestings," who bond as teenagers at an arts camp in Meg Wolitzer's wise and expansive ninth novel, comments decades later. "Everyone has basically one aria to sing over their entire life," he adds.

Since the publication of her powerful fifth novel, "The Wife," in 2003 – about a woman who channels her own superior talent into her husband's literary career – Wolitzer has been hitting one high note after another in her ongoing exploration of what constitutes a successful life, particularly for women. Filled with characters whose problems are so familiar you feel you might know them, Wolitzer's novels provide perfect fodder for reading groups, raising questions about the balance of career and personal life, ambition, money, sex, and parenting.

Recommended: Bestselling books the week of 6/26/14, according to IndieBound*

Her impressive run of books in the last decade includes "The Position," about the repercussions of a bestselling "Joy of Sex"–type manual on the authors' grown children; "The Ten-Year Nap," about stay-at-home moms wondering how they landed where they are despite their mothers' feminist struggles; and, most recently, "The Uncoupling," about what happens in a small town when all the women involved in a school production of Aristophanes' Lysistrata eschew sex.

Wolitzer has been working at a fever pitch clearly on a mission to write her way out of what she regards as the women's lit ghetto.  In her much-discussed New York Times Book Review essay last year, "The Second Shelf," Wolitzer complained that female novelists don't get the same attention and respect as their male counterparts – even when male authors write domestic fiction, such as Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot." She notes that the differences begin with book size (women's self-edited, slim volumes versus men's doorstoppers) and extend to jacket design (illustrations of laundry hanging on a line versus abstract graphics with author and title trumpeted in bold block letters).

Well, The Interestings announces itself as a big book from the get-go, with its bold, eye-catchingly striped cover and substantial heft. But its increased weightiness isn't just about packaging: It is also a matter of expanded scope and ambition. Wolitzer follows her six main characters from their teens in 1974 through their fifties in 2012, as they try to grasp the puzzling relationship between promise, talent, money, success, sadness, power, love, and luck. Her novel is filled with sharp and often witty observations – not only observing how life "took people and shook them around" but also marking societal changes over a span that encompasses Nixon's resignation, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, and an increased focus on finance. "Since when did 'portfolio' start to refer to money, not artwork? It's like the way if someone's an analyst, it no longer means they're a Freudian, it means they study the stock market," her protagonist observes.

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.

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.

Wolitzer's novel is especially good at capturing friendships that feel almost incestuous in their intense complexity. Like Mary McCarthy's "The Group," it follows a circle of friends over the unpredictable arc of their lives, and like Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety" (which I wrote about in my November 2012 column), it captures the vagaries of chance and health and the sense of responsibility to close friends even as it addresses the jealousies that can arise between them. Martha McPhee's "Dear Money," about a writer fed up with living hand-to-mouth who accepts a "Pygmalion"-type dare to become a high-flying bond trader, is another novel that dramatizes how the career choices we make affect our lives, though it takes the toxicity of financial envy among friends even further. Readers may also enjoy comparing "The Interestings" with Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," which shares its Manhattan setting and concerns three ambitious, entitled graduates of Brown (which happens to be Wolitzer's alma mater as well) who are convinced of their own importance as they approach their thirties and 9/11.

"The Interestings" isn't perfect. Wolitzer's repeated roll calls of her characters' names and sometimes perfunctory, excessively expository updates of their stories are occasionally wearying. Inevitably, some narrative strands are more engrossing than others, but it's ironic that two of the three lead women – Ash and her brother's ex-girlfriend, Cathy – get short shrift in this engaging, operatic tale. I initially questioned Wolitzer's early break with chronology, fast-forwarding 35 years in her characters' lives in her second and third chapters before circling back to the 1970s, a move that seemed to undercut suspense. While her eagerness to let us know that her book wouldn't stay focused on teenagers and to make sure we look out for the right things as we proceed came to make sense, it's a tricky, gutsy narrative ploy that bears closer scrutiny.

And so, too, does "The Interestings." In probing the unpredictable relationship between early promise and success and the more dependable one between self-acceptance and happiness, Wolitzer's novel is not just a big book but a shrewd one.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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