Caution: This review of "The Interestings" — a supremely engrossing, deeply knowing, genius-level enterprise — is in danger of becoming all about me.
I blame the author, Meg Wolitzer. I blame the relevancy of her novel, its timeliness. I blame the particularity of her details and the universality of her themes and the hologramic quality of her characters, with whom I found myself conferring late last night. Yes, that's right. I was conferring with these characters; I was in their midst.
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I. Me. You see what I mean.
The novel is thick and thickly populated. And yet Wolitzer is brilliant at keeping the reader close by her side as she takes her story back and forth across time, in and out of multiple lives, and into the tangle of countless continuing, sometimes compromising, conversations. There are six protagonists at the start of her tale — teens at a summer arts camp during the summer of 1974, when "the world was unbearable, and they themselves were not." The teens' own self-importance empowers them. Their unknown futures bind them. They call themselves "The Interestings," and they will be a dancer, a musician, an animator, a director, an actress, an architect — or so they believe. In a boys' teepee they gather, and that teepee will, Wolitzer writes, "quake, as though their kind of irony, and their kind of conversation and friendship, was so strong it could actually make a small wooden building chug and sway in preparation for liftoff."
It's impossible, at that age, to look ahead and see. Do you remember? I do. Do you see this in the teens you know? Yes, exactly. Me, too.
Wolitzer, however, writes from the perspective of one who looks back and knows — as one who attended a camp like her fictional Spirit-in-the-Woods and has wrestled, through the intervening decades, with the niggling realities of ambition and achievement. Writing about envy and art, endangered commonalities and simple human needs, Wolitzer manages to be both skewering and compassionate as she charts the adultification of the Interestings: Ethan, the ugly-nice-guy animator who is reluctantly famous and wealthy before he's 30; his wife, Ash, the minor director who comes from money and is hiding a terrible family secret; and Jules, the witty would-be actress who doesn't really have what it takes and settles for another career, an unfamous husband and a cramped Manhattan walk-up.
Wolitzer reliably breaks her characters from type. She writes incredibly shapely sentences. Ethan is her greatest creation — Ethan who has always loved Jules but is believably happy in his marriage to the beautiful Ash. Ash is a remarkably complex protagonist, too — generous and never pretentious, determined not to allow her wealth to define her or become an excuse for doing less. Jules, for her part, is a somewhat homely girl who will always love Ethan, but not in that way — an everyday person who is (whether or not she can see this herself) essential.
Friendship among special people — or those who have declared themselves special — is inevitably messy. Who is owed what? Who has earned what? How can obvious discrepancies — in opportunities, in accolades, in benefits, in lifestyles — be made to matter less? How and when do we decide, as Jules must ultimately decide, to turn away from the dreams we've had? To live a smaller life. To make small meaningful. To believe in our own unfamous worthiness.
"I always thought it was the saddest and most devastating ending," Jules says to Ash, about the Herman Wouk novel "Marjorie Morningstar." "How you could have these enormous dreams that never get met. How without knowing it you could just make yourself smaller over time. I don't want that to happen to me."
We don't want that for Jules. We don't want it for ourselves.
Against the startling success of her two best friends, Jules will come to feel diminished, even humiliated. Within the context of her own life plans, she will come to feel cheated and finally adrift. It's Jules' husband, the steady and seemingly unspectacular Dennis (though in truth, he is the novel's moral center), who has to save Jules, who must remind her, again and again, that they, perhaps, are the lucky ones. That they have what matters most.
Dennis studied her, his arms deep in the sink, and then slowly he lifted them out, dripping, and unstopped the drain. Water was pulled out with an obscene slurp, and Dennis wiped his hands on the sides of his pants and came forward to collect Jules against him. >He smelled of lemon Dawn, and she probably smelled of whatever chemical was released when you became bitter.< "Don't be discouraged," he said. "We have a lot of good things. We're here in our little love nest. Okay, our crappy little love nest. But we're here." It touched her that he'd said this; he was just so lovely to her, even after she'd been complaining, ranting, monomaniacal. He smelled of lemon Dawn, and she probably smelled of whatever chemical was released when you became bitter. PW
Maybe it's art or maybe it's money that we want. Maybe it's fame or maybe power. But what "The Interestings" does — over many pages and the course of much intrigue — is to suggest the possibility that the thing we might want most of all is that little cramped love nest. That place where we are forgiven for who we are and where we're given the chance to forgive.
Beth Kephart is the author of 15fifteen books. "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir" will be published in August. She blogs daily at http://www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com
By Meg Wolitzer, Riverhead, 468 pages, $27.95
Meg Wolitzer will appear at 4:30 p.m., April 21, at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., in Andersonville. She will also appear at Printers Row Lit Fest, which is June 8 and 9. Check printersrowlitfest.org for updates.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun