Wolitzer’s novel draws readers with endearing characters
“The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead, 2013. $27.95.
Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel recounts the lifelong friendships of the four main characters — Ethan Figman, Jules Jacobson, Ash Wolf and Jonah Bay (their names alone draw you in) — forged at an arts camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods (it was the ’70s) the summer they were 15 and dubbed themselves the Interestings (ah, the refreshingly unapologetic self-importance of teenagers).
Thanks to Wolitzer’s remarkable gift for character development, following the lives of this group of friends from their precocious teenage years through middle age makes for a satisfying read. She fleshes the details of the Interestings’ lives out so completely, you feel as if you know them and become somehow invested in their futures, an exceptional accomplishment for a writer.
Ethan is a chubby, homely, sweet-natured boy, whose early aptitude for drawing leads to the development of a hugely popular animated television show in his adult life, bringing the shy Ethan an almost unseemly level of fame and fortune.
Teenage Ethan falls hard for Jules, a self-conscious girl who discovers that her awkwardness disappears when she’s on stage at camp, her comedic talents leading her to pursue a career in acting. When that difficult vocation doesn’t pan out the way she hoped, she studies to become a psychiatrist.
Jules becomes fast friends with the beautiful and wealthy Ash, and is welcomed into Ash’s sophisticated family. So intoxicating is the pull of the Wolf family’s rarefied Manhattan world on suburban Jules that it takes her years to finally accept the utter normalcy of her life and recognize that there is something noble in living a decent, hardworking life.
And then there’s Ash’s impossibly handsome — and impossibly arrogant — brother Goodman, whose brutish behavior one drunken New Year’s Eve has lifelong repercussions not only for himself but for his ex-girlfriend (a high-strung ballerina named Cathy who was also one of the original Spirit-in-the-Woods campers), his family and his circle of friends.
Jonah Bay, the gentle, handsome son of a famous folk singer, who is harboring a painful childhood secret, rounds out the group of friends.
A highlight of the book is Wolitzer’s marvelous depiction of the relationship between Ethan and Jules, whose initial puppy love blossoms into a lifelong friendship based on profound admiration and unadulterated enjoyment of one another’s company, truly the rarest type of friendship (never mind Ethan’s undying love for Jules).
While the relationships among the Interestings and their significant others are the focus of the story, the book is really a musing on success: how some of us will have it, some of us won’t, and how to deal with the fallout when, in Jules’s case, your closest friends flourish while your life turns out to be not quite as spectacular as your 15-year-old self had imagined it would. We can’t all be Ethan Figmans.
At 468 pages, this is no easy breezy read, but I bet you will find yourself, as I did, savoring every word and not wanting it to end. It’s that good.