“The Interestings” (2013) is a big book in every sense of the word. The dense, almost 500-page novel follows a group of six teenagers who label themselves “The Interestings,” from their meeting in 1974 at Spirit-in-the-Woods camp for artistic teens in upstate New York through the next four decades of their lives. The challenges they face are broad — envy, success, unrequited love, special needs, unfulfilled talent, mental illness, death — and Wolitzer covers them with authority and care.
In the opening chapter Wolitzer hints at the scope of her story by introducing her characters “on a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year.” She paints a rich picture of each of the six as teens the moment they all meet. Julie Jacobson, a new girl from a public school and a tract house on Long Island, is the closest thing to the story’s protagonist. She has been invited into Boys Teepee 3 for a private get-together with a group of popular returning campers. They are privileged, well-educated and verbal New York City kids who seem to her like beings from another planet. They all share joints and vodkas with tang, and as the night progresses she is christened Jules. She likes the new name and identity as a gregarious, funny girl that she assumes that night.
Two of these friends will become central to her life. Young Ash Wolfe seems destined for a successful life with her beauty, gentility and acting talent. Ethan Figman is a homely but charismatic guy who appears headed for the top with an exceptional talent for animation. Their futures seem set but the futures of the others are less clear. Goodman Wolfe, Ash’s handsome brother, has been prepped for a big life by his affluent family but has little drive and coasts along on his looks. Cathy Kiplinger is a trained dancer whose developing body does not fit that of a professional dancer. Jonah Bay is a fragile, delicately handsome boy whose mother is a famous folksinger, yet despite his musical talents and pressure from everyone, he prefers designing structures.
You may find yourself not caring much about these teens at first, but hold on, because as soon as Wolitzer establishes the characters, she lets life happen to them. Their stories unfold in an appealing, non-chronological way. You may wonder periodically, “Wait, how did that happen?” but you’ll get the satisfying story soon enough. Readers become almost intimate with the three whose stories are told in depth. They are principled, good people you will really care about.
Her writing is full of wonderful details and clever connections. That period of our history is a powerful character too, as it touches the lives of the characters. AIDS terrifies the gay community; Moonies are deprogramed by their families; 9/11 changes New York forever.
Wolitzer has created a stir in the literary world for a March 2012 essay she wrote for The New York Times entitled, “The Second Shelf” where she bemoans the difficulty women authors have getting their works to be taken as seriously as those of men. She and all women writers should be pleased that critics are likening this book to the highly-acclaimed works of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. This is definitely a top-shelf book.
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