There’s something mildly horrifying about the fact that it has taken Meg Wolitzer nine novels to be recognised as a credible writer of fiction. With three decades of superlative fiction under her metaphorical belt, Wolitzer has written what is now being described—entirely too late—as a “breakout” novel, one with ambition and verve.
Not entirely surprising, this, because nothing seems to speak to society today as clearly as the idea of late bloomers (think Susan Boyle, but with a manuscript rather than a microphone), who through the vagaries of fate, finally achieve the success they deserve…which perception is made all the more ironic by the fact that The Interestings is largely about whether the compulsion to excel or to be recognised is in fact a sure-shot path to happiness.
That question is what preoccupies Jules Jacobson, one of Wolitzer’s key protagonists, across her life. Neither wealthy, nor especially attractive—the exact opposite of the people that tend to be fetishised via the medium of truly awful reality television—Jules is a refreshing breath of fresh air in a world that values tangibles over so much else. And although we open the novel with Jules remarking on her own ordinariness in a disparaging manner, we soon realise that it’s not so much her who’s ordinary as the people she’s around who seem to be blessed with more than their fair share of life’s bounty.
[quote]Incredible. Someone who’s likeable for actually being likeable[/quote]
Fortunately, we aren’t the only ones. “You’re just so much yourself,” Jules is told by an eager teenager hot to trot into her heart and her pants. “You’re ambitious, you’re quick, you’re really funny, and you’re a good friend.” Incroyable. Someone who’s likeable for actually being likeable, rather than for her ability to titillate the public with series of genital-baring paparazzo moments. Who’d have thought it?
The six-member cast of The Interestings meet at a summer camp for artistically inclined teenagers. It’s 1974 and Richard Nixon has resigned, but when you’re an adolescent, politics is a distant second to hormone surges, and both are left choking on clouds of dust kicked up by the race towards seeing who can be the most self-involved. There’s the gorgeous theatre-loving Ash and her charismatic, somewhat broken brother Goodman; Ethan, a homely-but-talented animator; Cathy, an emotionally needy dancer both blessed and plagued by a pair of oversized breasts; Jonah, the introverted son of a famous musician; and Jules Jacobson, our anti-hero with a bad perm and some mild comedic talent.
Although this is an ensemble piece, the book’s emotional core springs from Jules, who is wooed at camp by the acne-ridden Ethan, and in sharing a first (very) awkward kiss, seems destined to end up with the only person in the group who seems to admire her spirit, rather than her looks. Her sponsor into the group, the lovely Ash seems destined to pair off with tall, dark and silent Jonah, while the emotional train-wrecks that are Goodman and Cathy head straight towards each other like two slightly deranged homing missiles.
[quote]“Only option for a creative person was constant motion — a lifetime of busy whirligigging”[/quote]
But that’s OK. Even having to settle for the least attractive, least wealthy (for now) member of the troupe is OK. Because for once, Jules feels that she belongs, and in all fairness, being a member of the Interestings changes her life. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that it changes her notion of what her life should be; that the “only option for a creative person was constant motion — a lifetime of busy whirligigging in a generally forward direction, until you couldn’t do it any longer.” A lifetime that will take her far away from her podunk town and her widowed mother, and aggravating sister, and propel her into the glitz and glamour of Neeww Yaaawk City.
Across four decades, using Jules as her primary narrator, Wolitzer takes us through the gradual, creeping onset of disillusionment, the shock of realisation and the vagaries of life – in other words, what everyone has to deal with when they start paying their own bills. But The Interestings would be a fairly dull book if all we had to work with were spotty teenagers (with or without trust-funds) and dreams of being the Next Big Thing. And dull, this novel is most certainly not.
Jump into the new millennium, and it is Ash and Ethan who are the golden couple, happily married, rolling about in whopping great piles of cash, and exuding the sort of smugness that just makes you want to push them into the path of an oncoming train. Jules, meanwhile, has settled into cosy domesticity with a good, solid guy who—although neither as brilliant as Ethan nor as attractive as Goodman—seems to be just right for her.
Wolitzer manages both to buy into and critique the fetishisation of the “gifted child”. Her characters are passionate about doing what you love. Ethan, for example, follows his dream of being an animator; for him, use of his talent is fortuitously linked to a giant cash-cow of merchandising deals and syndication that no one ever thought would happen. That’s right, a generation of Yummy Mummies crows in the background at frowning Tiger Mothers, real talent will take you places as long as you stay true to yourself. But Wolitzer also recognises that we aren’t all exceptional and that money, connections, and support can make or break you.
Jules, for example, learns this when she fails as an actress. “[I]t had never just been about talent; it had also always been about money”. A she struggles to pay bills and sets up mousetraps with her husband Dennis, Jules experiences a vitriolic spasm of envy for the “perfect” lives that Ethan and Ash seem to live, going off on a rant that despite trying to be self-deprecating, heads straight into self-loathing territory. This is the set-up of a rather wonderful moment in The Interestings in which Dennis, fed up with his wife’s constant disparagement of their life(style), reaches a breaking point.
“Specialness — everyone wants it,” he snaps, ticked off at Jules’ whining. “Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do — kill themselves?” Wolitzer isn’t shy about portraying this erosive tension that arises when perceived success and wealth create gaps between individuals. Neither is she judgemental about it: no matter whether it’s the envy of your best friends, or lying to your spouse…these are all just things that are, rather than occasions for proselytising.
There is much, much more to Wolitzer’s novel, and it’s difficult to reduce it down, even by a little. It’s not about getting what you think you want. Success and excess don’t always have to go hand-in-hand, or even be confused with one another. Nothing may succeed quite as dramatically as success, but there is, as we discover, much more to being (an) Interesting.