In Meg Wolitzer’s stunning novel, The Interestings, the heroine, Jules Jacobson, attends a summer arts camp as a teenager in the ’70s and dreams of being a comedic actress. Later, after she is told in New York that she has no talent and will never make it as a character actress, she pursues her interest in psychology and becomes a clinical social worker. Her clients consider her “funny and encouraging,” but she wryly realizes that being funny is not altogether a good thing. She is anxious about money: health insurance pays for less therapy for her patients every year, and she and her therapist friends share space to keep costs down.
Wolitzer describes a day during the Christmas season, when Jules is irritated by the Christmas music, the crowds, and the anticipation of her rich best friends’ annual Christmas newsletter. Though she doesn’t let on to her patients, she is jangled.
Today, in Janice Kling’s session, Janice was talking about a familiar theme, loneliness, and perhaps because it was Christmas season the conversation had a desperate charge. Janice said that she had no idea how people went on year after year, not being touched or spoken to intimately. ‘How do they do it, Jules?’ she asked. ‘How do I do it? I should go to an intimacy prostituted.’ She paused, and then looked up with a sharply smiling face. “Maybe I do go to one,’ she said, pointing.
‘Well, if I’m an intimacy prostitute,’ Jules said lightly, ‘then I should charge you much, much more.”
In this gracefully-written, ambitious novel, Wolitzer describes the changes in American life from the 1970s to the present as she follows the trajectory of the lives of several friends who first meet as teens at a summer arts camp. Politics, the economy, religion, the mental health system, the arts, and the exploitation of third-world workers are some of the subjects she explores.
Although Jules is at the center of the novel, she is only one of a precocious group of friends at camp dubbed “the Interestings” by Ethan, who becomes a rich and famous animator with an internationally known cartoon show. Jules, who has never been popular, is excited to be a member of the group. Ethan, who loves her humor and unexpected turns of phrase, more than once over the years makes a pass at her, but she is not only not attracted, but is repulsed by this sweet, charming man. (Wolitzer’s description of the adolescent Ethan perfectly evokes the repulsive teenage boy she always sees: “thick bodied, unusually ugly, his features appearing a little bit flattened, as if pressed against a mime’s invisible glass wall…”)
After Ethan marries her best friend, the talented, beautiful Ash Wolf, Jules is jealous. She is furiously convinced Ash would not have made it as a theater director had she not married Ethan, and she is probably right. She loves Ethan and Ash, but there is lots of anger. Everything is very difficult for Jules and her family.
Ash and Ethan are the golden ones: the others have more problems and suffer more. Ash’s brother, the handsome Goodman, flees the country after his ex-girlfriend Cathy, a dancer, accuses him of rape. (Wolitzer gently drops Cathy from the novel, but the truly horrible Goodman turns up occasionally). Then there is Jonah, the son of a famous folk singer, who denies his talent for music after a musician friend of his mother exploits him, repeatedly giving him LSD. Jonah is gay, and in the age of AIDS, repeatedly loses friends.
All of Wolitzer’s characters are fascinating, but for most of the novel we are focused on Jules’ anger and envy, often a very uncomfortable, but very real, place to be. At home Jules worries about finances. She and her depressed husband Dennis have not been lucky: Dennis had a small stroke after he ate something contraindicated by his MAOI antidepressant; then he lost his job as an ultrasound technician for betraying emotion over an image of a patient’s cancer. No antidepressant has worked for him in years, so he stays home to raise their boisterous, funny daughter, Aurora. While their friends are upwardly mobile, they are barely able to pay for rent and food.
This brilliant, graceful, funny, sad, moving novel is quintessentially American: people of different classes come together and attempt to bridge gaps. It is an American struggling-to-get-by story, a talent-transmogrified-to-riches story, a learning-that-talent-isn’t-everything story, and a turning-one’s-back-on-talent story. Wolitzer also reminds us that our best friends may hate us.
One of the best American writers, Wolitzer has finally caught the attention of critics with this “big” book. Let’s hope people will go back and read her brilliant spare earlier work, like The Uncoupled, a riff on Lysistrata, or The Wife, a comedy with a twist about a woman who at 64 decides to leave her husband, a famous award-winning novelist.