The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting. They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties. The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them. Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes. As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything. Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers. She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.
All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs. She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member. Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book. Jules spends a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments. We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest. Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.
Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds. The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows. At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying. I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt.
In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined. Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make. I liked this book. It made me think a lot about past and current friendships.