Author: Meg Wolitzer
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: October 2014
After I heard about this book I talked about it so much that I knew I would inevitably read it. (My wife got so sick of me pointing it out in bookstores that she became numbly disinterested.) I wanted to know about these characters who met at a summer camp and whose lives continued to intertwine as they aged.
The best parts of the book, by far, are those pages that describe Spirit-in-the-Woods, an artsy summer camp that draws mostly well-off kids. The first incarnation is at the beginning, where Jules, the main character, meets Ash and Ethan (who later get married, despite Ethan’s love for Jules), as well as Goodman, Jonah, and Cathy. Toward the end we revisit the camp again, nicely bringing some ideas to a close. Unfortunately, the overall page count at summer camp was too little for a book of this length.
The majority of the story focuses on Jules and her marriage to a man named Dennis, and how their modest lives compare to the wealthy lives of Ash and Ethan (the latter scores big by creating an animated television show comparable to The Simpsons). There is plenty of domestic drama, all of it insightful and realistic. But while the reading experience is inviting and fluid, the story falls short of complete engagement. Perhaps it’s the indecisive handling on how much to focus on each individual character (I remember four or so POVs, though Jules is still the center) or the lack of meaningful intercuts to the summer camp days. There are some unique side stories, like the defining moment for Jonah Bay when he was emotionally manipulated by an older man, colorfully original because of its setting. (Though his foray into a cult was an odd inclusion. Maybe it felt non-consequential because the The Moonies seem so tame compared to modern-day deceptions that can really hurt people. What’s the risk of a hippie commune?)
Wolitzer writes with confidence, and any of her chapters could be studied for flow, characterization, and dialogue. It would be a good book to page through while taking a creative writing class. Yet the lack of a stronger plot is glaring. The book is in the same vein as Freedom, dealing with modern American adults at different points in their lives. Yet somehow Freedom felt focused and driven, while this one is just smoothly competent. It also seems to aspire to be a “New York novel,” which I have very little interest in unless it’s original and universal like Let the Great World Spin. I can’t really say what I would have done differently, but this whole thing has made me wonder about my taste for pure domestic dramas in book form. Am I trained to want something more shiny?
That could be. Or it could be that naming a book The Interestings is a bold yet doomed move. In the novel, this is supposedly the name the tight-knit camp kids gave to themselves, but it hardly comes up in that context. Wolitzer makes sure to drive home the wider lesson that sometimes people aren’t as interesting as they think they are, or that others think they are…and that some differences are difficult to overcome…though we have to try to live with one another…and that life is just super challenging and unknowable. All good stuff. But did the author create a book that will be remembered for years to come? Will she be considered as artistic and influential as her characters hoped to be? I’m not so sure.
Cover art corner: I was drawn to this book not only because of the synopsis but also the cover art. Isn’t it just so interesting? Forgive me. Seriously though, that is a great cover, and it wraps around to the bound edge, so that the book stands out even when you shelve it traditionally. After staring at this rainbow enough I also got to wondering about the balance between the title’s prominence and that of the author’s name. WOLITZER stands out in all caps, above the title. Why? Apparently this author has about eight other books to her name, so I suppose this is the logical branding choice if her name is the draw at this point in her career. The same would be true of anything written by J.K. Rowling. On the other end of the spectrum, I suppose new writers rely more on the books’ titles because their name is not established. Check out Monica Byrne’s name on her debut novel. Isn’t it, ahem, interesting how this flip happens? Does the same thing occur with bands and their album releases? I need to know!