New York Times best-selling writer Meg Wolitzer already has eight novels behind her, including The Uncoupling and The Ten Year Nap. Her ninth, The Interestings, published this summer by Chatto and Windus, is a coming-of-age tale that critics have compared to Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.
At the Spirit-in-the-Woods art and music camp in 1974, plain, self-depreciating Julie Jacobson somehow finds herself in with a cool and charismatic bunch of teenagers. She is reborn as ‘Jules’, and becomes BFFLs with Ash Wolf; beautiful, kind and exceedingly wealthy.
Wolitzer has captured the teenage aptitude for being a pretentious twat perfectly.Ash’s brother, Goodman, is viewed by their parents as a perpetual fuck-up, but at Spirit-in-the-Woods he is King, the boy that all the girls hope will invite them to a steamy sleeping bag session in Boys Teepee 3.
Then there’s Jonah, son of a famous female folk-singer, and a gifted musician in his own right, but dismissive of any future musical career of his own for reasons that become apparent later.
Cathy is a dramatic and needy dancer whose career prospects look bleak, as her rapidly growing breasts make going professional increasingly unlikely.
And rounding off the group is Ethan Figman, ugly, earnest and exceptionally kind-hearted, with a gift for animation. He falls for Jules, hard, and even when she rejects him after an awkward, sloppy, boner-centric snog in the animation shed (I know, we’ve all been there) his flame still burns strongly for her.
The gang name themselves The Interestings, in that sort-of-ironic-but-not-really way that teenagers do so well. Wolitzer has captured the teenage aptitude for being a pretentious twat perfectly.
After three glorious summers at Spirit-in-the-Woods, and frequent meet-ups at the Wolf’s flash apartment in New York City, things begin to unravel.
The book’s fairly slow pace picks up, and just when it feels like climaxes are about to be reached… the group age up and effectively a whole new novel begins. It’s unexpected, but Wolitzer somehow pulls it off.
The rest of the novel follows their adult lives. Two of the group marry off and become stinking rich (I won’t say who because, as with a lot of teenagers, there’s much pairing off during their Spirit-in-the-Woods years, and it could be any of them), and not everyone manages to fulfil those teenage dreams that they were oh so sure about.
For the non-rich ones life becomes a slog, and they slowly realise the terrible truth, that it doesn’t matter how talented or creative or god damn interesting you are as a teenager, the sad fact is that in the real world it’s all about the money.
Jealousy simmers, never quite surfacing or destroying friendships, but instead gnawing away at individuals from the inside, until their reality becomes skewed and they can no longer appreciate their modest but lovely lives.
This book covers about three decades of the lives of a handful of characters, so by its nature it’s long. It never feels like Wolitzer is wasting paper though, apart from a few minor deviations (like a brief and unnecessary sub-plot involving a cult) the story is driven and engaging.
The Interestings is a surprisingly feminist novel, peppered with references to Take Back the Night and Gloria Steinem. Unfortunately, Meg Wolitzer avoids making the big feminism statement that it seems like she is going to, in fact the controversial storyline that rears its head at the end of their teenage years fails to be tied up at all.
Perhaps Wolitzer chickened out of making that grand feminist statement, but actually given that this is a book about the sad realisations you make as you get older, it’s easier to imagine that she wanted to stay true to the fact that sometimes you don’t get to find out ‘the real story.’
Regardless, Meg Wolitzer can be proud that her ninth novel bares the weight of its name by being really very interesting indeed, and not just in the self-prescribed teenage sense of the word.