It’s 1974, and Julie Jacobsen is sitting in a tepee at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a hippie-ish summer camp populated with wealthy, talented teenagers. Five such adolescents accompany her—Cathy Kiplinger, Ethan Figman, Jonah Bay and siblings Goodman and Ash Wolf—smoking pot, drinking vodka and boasting of their cultural capital. “If you think about it,” Ethan argues, “Lord of the Flies is basically the opposite of Spirit-in-the-Woods. One’s a total nightmare, and the other’s utopia.” Julie feels herself distanced from the quintet economically, intellectually and physically; yet despite her feelings of inadequacy she is integrated in the group – she becomes ‘Jules’, a fully-fledged member of the self-proclaimed ‘Interestings’.
Meg Wolitzer’s ninth novel The Interestings tracks the six teenagers over the course of some 40 years. Nixon’s resignation, the Vietnam War, the proliferation of HIV, the housing boom and exploitative sweatshop labour – among other topics – all come under the author’s scrutiny. The lives of the friends take ‘interesting’, unpredictable turns: Ethan joins America’s wealthy elite after creating a hugely successful animated TV show; high-powered Cathy is responsible for compensating the families of the victims of 9/11; Goodman battles (or submits to) drug addiction and, when a serious accusation of sexual assault is levelled against him, is forced to flee the country. The Interestings’ paths diverge and intersect as they reach maturation, and later middle age, and their couplings, careers and jealousies occupy the narrative.
“I went to a summer camp in 1974,” Wolitzer says, “and it changed my life, I guess I would say. It really was a wonderful place where I met people who were not like myself, [people] who were really invested in the arts. I’d never thought of myself that way at all, but it opened me up in some huge way and it never really closed up again… Allowing enough time to pass between that summer and now, I realise [The Interestings] is about getting older, and the whole thing of life and looking back on talent and what happens to it.”
“There is a kind of fetishisation of talent and ‘specialness’ – at least in the States, and maybe [in the UK] as well… this idea that if you are good at something when you are young you will be able to carry that through your whole life, and that will be enough. If that were true, we would have a world of glassblowers and tie-dyers and actors! Most people can’t make a living from something they are good at when they are 15. They don’t want to, or can’t, or can’t find a way to translate that. I guess in a larger sense, the novel makes a case for the liberal arts as much as anything, [it makes a case] for the humanities.”
Wolitzer’s novel is founded upon an ambitious premise, but it’s one it lives up to. She manages to maintain characters and major themes without patronising them; each has a depth and deliberation. Her prose style is equally as unfussy; sentences are free-flowing and unhindered by elaborate word choice. Their simplicity and straightforwardness is a triumph – it’s also one not at odds with the novel’s ambition. There’s a Flaubert-like accumulation of details and gestures. When Ethan speculates on his newfound wealth, it forces him to ‘acknowledge how his life was turning – the way a ship of state turns, slow and incremental, with great, violent, unseen convulsions underneath’; similarly the novel, rather than handbrake-turn gestures to build characters or advance the plot, takes a more gradual, cumulative approach.
It’s resulted in a substantial novel. The Interestings weighs in at over 450 pages. “It’s long for me,” Wolitzer says, “but I felt that I needed to give myself the time – the idea being that I wanted to write the novel that I want to find on the shelf. I wanted to write a long, and I hope pleasurable novel. A novel is about intimacy: it removes you from the world and puts you in a small room with itself where there are no other people, except the ones who live inside the book. That’s a lot to ask… so it has to be good.”
Fortunately for Wolitzer, The Interestings is good. As the characters endure their twenties, a ‘not-so’ Interesting joins the gang – Jules’ partner Dennis. “He infiltrates them, he falls in love with Jules, and he lives with her. But he was never told how special he was. He wasn’t like those kids from New York City. Jules wasn’t told that either, but she aspired to become like that, and she did. Dennis never had that desire. He is living his life… I really liked him because he isn’t being pretentious, he isn’t living his life to some other ideal, and taking his pulse in a way that some of the other characters are,” Wolitzer argues.
The introduction of Dennis – an ordinary guy partial to football in the park, working an unspectacular job –is the catalyst for Jules’ realisation: it’s OK to be OK, or as the novel claims, ‘you could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting’. “Not everybody is talented. What are they supposed to do, kill themselves?” Wolitzer asks. “This idea that if you are not better than average, if you are not really special, you are in trouble… I mean, what is a good life? What is a good enough life? Because Jules’ friends are phenomenally successful, her own life doesn’t look so great. But if they weren’t there as a comparison all the time, I think she would feel quite differently about it.”
If The Interestings is a case for the liberal arts, then it’s a depressingly realistic one. Jules’ ambitions of becoming an actor are subsumed by the more immediate need to pay the rent; Cathy’s early dreams of a career as a dancer fail to materialise as a result of her fuller figure; it’s only Ash – propped up by her prosperous parents and, later, Ethan’s wealth and connections – who enjoys artistic success, with a string of small-scale feminist theatre productions. “It can be a deterrent to finding what you really love to do if really early on you have to think of yourself as a worker bee,” Wolitzer says.
Tellingly, when Spirit-in-the-Woods needs a 21st-century facelift, it is mooted that it ought to become a site to contain rather than channel creativity, a kind of do-gooding, CV-boosting summer camp. It’s a suggestion Wolitzer is clearly at odds with. “There is really no reason to think that one can make a living as an artist. There is really no good reason to think that at all – this is a very non-arts world. It is going outside the system to do that – but if you feel you really have to then you had better try, and see what happens.”
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is out now, published by Chatto.