Megan Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings, is as compelling as its title suggests (along with extremely well-written and engaging), but short it is not. But the 480-page journey is worth it. Wolitzer has, within the narratives of her six characters, captured the voice of a generation. Those who were teenagers in the 1970s will relate well, and those older or younger will learn something about the time and the people from the book.
The novel begins when six teens meet in a summer camp for artistic kids in the 70s and follows their lives into the present, touching on each decade as they make their way to adulthood. Julie Jacobson attends the camp on scholarship, and she is glad to get away from her mother and sister, as their ordinary lives have been marred by her father dying of cancer. She is thrilled to be in the company of real New York kids (since she is not from the city) and even more excited that they take her in, and dub themselves members of a special club they will call The Interestings. They make the vow early on that their lives will not be boring, and as the novel progresses, their lives are anything but.
Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, and Ash and her brother Goodman are, respectively, an animator, a musician, a dancer, an actress who wants to further the cause of feminism in theater, and a charmer and wannabe architect. Julie (renamed Jules that first summer of their friendship because it just fits the club better and sounds cooler) becomes a comedic actress by default, because she really doesn’t have any real talent, and making herself the butt of the joke is a great way to fit in with these fabulous kids (Jonah’s mother is a famous folk singer and Ash and Goodman come from a lot of money). After being in their presence, Jules never again accepts her middle-class life, and lives in a state of constant envy. Ethan, the unattractive but highly talented animation guru, loves her early on, but she does not return the feeling until it’s far too late. A tragic situation brings Ash and Ethan together and they become the couple everyone wants to be (Ethan has TV success on the scale of The Simpsons, and the money that goes along with it).
The novel explores the friends’ ambitions, their shortcomings, and what it means to be born with a talent that must be explored (and what it means not to, as not everyone has “it.”) Some waste their talents, like Jonah, because his mother neglects him and he has self-esteem issues and is wayward. Goodman does not live up to his name, and is the resident morally conflicted character (though he isn’t even very conflicted—just always entitled). Ash, born beautiful, does some important work, but not without riding Ethan’s coattails (getting plays produced that a struggling playwright without a famous husband would not).
Jules becomes a therapist because she discovers that her real talent is listening to others, instead of entertaining them. None of the characters stay static—they are not the same people throughout the novel that they are when we encounter when they are teens. Some change more than others, and the transformations are powerful. One of Wolitzer’s talents is weaving these transformations so that it isn’t just individual stories strung together—these characters were connected early on, and remain so throughout the novel, into their 50s.
The characters are flawed and, at times, maddening. Jules ranges from a teenager who just wants to escape her own life (and a girl the reader can feel for, being that she lost her father) to a woman who is ashamed of where she came from. It starts to get a bit old when she cannot shake the green-eyed monster that will not die, regarding the success of Ethan (and in turn, Ash). She marries a man who is sweet and steady but not ambitious, which she knows going in. So the reader begins to have little sympathy for her constant whining about how good her friends have it. And when she is cruel to her husband over it, it’s a smart glimpse into a real woman with real resentments. Wolitzer obviously did not set out to create perfect characters who dance through life on their stages—they all have their failings, but Jules is really the center of it all.
Wolitzer captures several settings well, starting with a summer arts camp, and she brings decades of life in NYC to the novel’s stage. One of the characters is gay, so we get a taste of what New York was like in the early years of AIDS fearing. One of the characters tries being a Moonie for a few months, and that lifestyle is explored; 9/11 New York and the aftermath makes its impression on their lives, as does personal success, failure, and sickness, including mental illness. The decades of being “The Interestings” bring many changes, but the novel never feels as if it is dragging on for too long. We the readers adopt these characters from when they are still children, and we follow along to see how they will all turn out. Art, talent, money, fame, jealously, sex, drugs, and music are all apparent themes, but friendship is the most interesting of them all.