Jules Jacobson is funny. She’s a main character, and she’s a love-interest of The Interestings’ most conventionally successful male character, Ethan, and she isn’t particularly pretty or sexy, or rich or glamorous.
My, is that refreshing to read. “You’re just so much yourself,” Ethan tells Jules, as a smitten teenager. “You’re not all neurotic like some girls … pretending to be a little less smart than a boy. You’re ambitious, you’re quick, you’re really funny, and you’re a good friend.” How satisfying to read a book which recognises that people fall for other people because they actually like them.
In The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer proves brilliant at writing normal, unremarkable lives, investing them with just as much detailed attention and humane humour as the lives of the beautiful, the rich and the famous. The American writer’s ninth novel is a doorstopper, one of those 500-page Franzen-esque works following several people over many years, and just as gobble-able. “The Interestings” is the name that six friends give to themselves, only half ironically, at an American summer camp for artistically talented teens in 1974. There’s beautiful, ethereal theatre-loving Ash and her gruff, charismatic brother Goodman; Ethan, an ugly, talented animator; Cathy, a dancer, entrancing to all teenage boys; Jonah, the introspective son of a famous folk musician, and Jules – a suburban kid with a bad perm, a recent bereavement, and a minor skill in comic acting.
The action jumps back and forth in time, largely following Jules and Ethan, as well as Jonah, and Ash – who unexpectedly falls in love with and marries Ethan. We follow the twists and turns of their friendships as they go to college, have relationships and children, get jobs. Some careers take off; others bump along the bottom – gifted children grow up into adults who have to pay the rent.
Wolitzer manages both to buy into and critique the fetishisation of the “gifted child”. Her characters have the precocious earnestness of the creatively ambitious, and are much given to making bold statements about the importance of doing what you love, the primacy of art. “Talent gets you through life,” Ash claims, and sometimes this is allowed to be true. Ethan, who creates a hugely successful animation show, is recognised as genuinely having that “small, hot glowing bulb of talent”, even after the youthful “exuberance burnt away”. But Wolitzer also skewers this obsession with being creatively fulfilled, artistically exceptional. We can’t all be exceptional – and anyway, as Jules realises, “it had never just been about talent; it had also always been about money”. She fails as an actress while Ash succeeds as a theatre director – and that is partly about ability and luck, but it’s also that these things come easier when your parents are loaded and supportive, when you have a first-rate education and the funds to bankroll your dreams.
The awkward, tragi-comic stresses these gaps in perceived success and actual wealth can cause between friends are captured here too; Jules has a corrosive envy of Ethan and Ash’s gilded lives. And Wolitzer’s unflinching, omniscient gaze makes the reader look right in the eye of some unpleasant human traits – from envy that makes you hate your best friends, to a shameful parental disappointment in your child, to the double-think that justifies lying to your husband. Wolitzer doesn’t pass judgement; the secrets and strains simply add to the sense that these characters are very real, un-romanticised and wincingly familiar.
She also pulls off an impressive balancing act, sometimes inhabiting the moment-to-moment present of her characters, and at other times writing with a droll hindsight. So here’s the young Jules’s idealistic fervour for her new-found friendships: “Feelings could come over you in a sudden wild sweep … they could return to the boys’ tepee, the six of them, and take their places in that perfect, unbroken, lifelong circle.” Wolitzer is good on teenage intensity, resisting the temptation simply to satirise it, but not going too gooey either.
At other points, the narration takes a modern-day standpoint, giving a wry – if sometimes jarring – socio-historic context (contrasting a Take Back the Night march in 1976 to the SlutWalks of the Noughties), or recognising how attitudes change (as when observing, pithily, on Ash’s stated ambition to be a feminist director: “In 1984 you could describe your dream job in this way and not be made fun of”).
Occasionally, the urge to run down every available narrative track is unhelpfully indulged; a short digression on Jonah’s mother’s later life with a cult, for example, sits awkwardly between passing allusion and fully-developed plotline. But mostly Wolitzer shows supreme control over what could have been a flabby story. This novel lives up to its name; Wolitzer’s perceptive portraiture makes these ordinary lives very interesting indeed.