by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Hardcover, 480 pages
Reviewed by Chris Ludovici
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a beast of a book. At four hundred eighty pages, and covering forty years of half a dozen lives, its ambition is both broad and admirable. It is compelling when it offers a sustained, ground-level view through one of her character’s eyes, which comprises the bulk of the book. But its ambitions also exceed Wolitzer’s strengths; the book suffers from odd pacing, random shifts in perspective, and haphazard leaps in time. When considered as a whole, the pieces don’t fit together in an organic, satisfying way.
The Interestings has an ensemble cast, but its lead is Jules Jacobson, who in the summer of 1974 finds herself inducted into the cool kid inner circle at Spirit in the Woods, a New England summer camp for privileged children. Jules, a plain middle class girl from Long Island who just lost her father to cancer, is attending the camp on scholarship and is immediately smitten with her new artistic friends and their upper-class Manhattan lives. There is the beautiful, open-hearted Ash; her moody, enigmatic brother Goodman; sensitive musician Jonah; emotional dancer Cathy; and the brilliant animator Ethan. The book follows these six people from childhood to middle age, as they come to terms with their various successes and failures.
As children, Jules and Ethan have a brief romantic relationship, one that ends at her insistence. The two remain friends, even after Ethan becomes involved with, and eventually marries, Jules’ closest friend Ash. When Ethan creates a cartoon that makes him a billionaire, Jules struggles with the jealousy as she trudges along in a much more economically and career compromised life. This is the most engaging plotline of the book and the real spine of the story.
Along the way, The Interestings makes many astute observations about how difficult it can be to maintain friendships in the face of family drama, distance, and class. Unfortunately, many of those observations are revealed in unsatisfying ways. The book makes odd leaps in both time and perspective. The first chapter is from Jules’s perspective and takes place in 1974 at the summer camp. The next chapter, however, takes place in 2009, and is, inexplicably, about the people who ran the camp. Chapter three, while still taking place in ‘09, jumps back to the now adult Jules. In chapter four we go back to 1981 and are still with Jules; at chapter five we’re back in 1974, again with Jules.
While the narrative straightens out a little after that, Wolitzer never really gets a handle on the structure of her story. It ricochets backward and forward in time and between four of the six friends, but without any sense of pacing or placement. We might spend a hundred pages with Jules, then twenty pages with Jonah, another seventy with Jules, then Ash, back to Jules, Ash again, then Jonah, Jules, and finally Ethan. There’s no real rhythm or timing to the perspective shifts, which, along with the time shifts, feel awkward and poorly thought-out.
Similarly, Ethan’s brilliant TV show, Figland, is too fussy and abstract to actually resonate. It feels made up, like somebody’s idea of a great idea, rather than a great idea itself. The show is clearly meant to be analogous to The Simpsons, and brilliant, cynical Ethan to its creator Matt Groening, but that comparison does Figland no favors. Part of what makes “The Simpsons” such a resounding and important show is the simplicity of the concept. In trying to come up with a brilliant animated show, Wolitzer imagines something far out and kooky and not very compelling at all. By the same token, Ethan often comes off less as a funny neurotic genius and more like somebody’s fantasy of one. His dialogue, especially when he jokes, is often hacky and self-conscious.
Wolitzer clearly wanted to write an enormous story, one that pitted everyday people against larger than life characters, outsized dreams, and accomplishments against economic hardships and everyday realities. But she’s only good at the intimate stuff, and the epic parts ring hollow. There are other plots too (The Interestings overflows with plot), involving sexual assault, child abuse, family secrets, money, September 11th, autism, AIDs, and on and on. Forty years is a long time, and a lot can and does happen. They’re mostly handled in the same lopsided fashion. The end result is a book that finds itself that murky zone of stories that shoot for epic greatness, but fall just short of its lofty goals landing in merely good.
–September 10, 2013
Chris Ludovici has published articles in The Princeton Packet and online at Cinedelphia. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, and in 2009 he won the Judith Stark awards in fiction and drama. He has completed three novels, two on his own and one with his wife Desi whom he lives with along with their son Sam and too many cats in Drexel Hill.