Friday, May 10, 2013

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

After reading Lauren Groff's Arcadia last month, a novel about people with whom I found it hard to relate to at all, I was thrilled to read Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings.  From the first chapter I thought "Now, these are my people."

For one thing, most of the characters were my age (ok, they were one year older than me, but at my age that doesn't count.)  For another thing, although I never went to a summer camp for talented teenagers like they did (I never went to a summer camp at all), I did spend my high school years surrounded by people talented in The Arts.   And ... at the age of 14 I made friends for life, just like they did - there is still a group of close friends I get together with on a regular basis.  And ... while I recognized very early (by the end of high school) that I didn't have enough talent to make a living in The Arts (and so gave up playing the piano altogether) I still always wished I could have.

Among my group of high school friends, two of them majored in theater, one of whom is a working actor in Chicago.  I have no illusions that it is an easy life but I love to hear her talk about it when we get together.  People I knew from high school musical productions went on to Broadway and among that group, one of the nicest of them (then, and he still seems to be) is a successful Grammy and Emmy award winning Broadway producer, composer and musical director.

So, I very much could relate to Jules, the principal character in this novel who spends the summer of 1974, the summer that Richard Nixon resigned, at a camp for talented artistic kids, making friends for life.  One of her friends, Ethan, becomes incredibly successful as a cartoonist, eventually creating a television series as long running as The Simpsons and making tons of money.

Jules and Ethan date during that summer of 1974 but Jules finally tells Ethan that she likes him but "not like that".  They stay very close friends through their lives though, and Ethan marries Jules' best friend from camp, Ash.  Ash is an actress who really wants to direct feminist plays.  I'm not giving much away here, we find out all of this in the first two chapters of this long novel.   Another friend, Jonah, is a talented musician, the son of a famous folk singer from the 60's.  Jonah doesn't want to pursue a career in music.   Another friend, Cathy, is a talented dancer, but unfortunately she has the wrong body-type to succeed as a professional dancer.   And then there is Ash's brother, Goodman, who is charismatic but lacks, to say the least, direction.  These 6 kids decide that they will be friends for life and dub themselves, only semi-ironically, "The Interestings".

The novel jumps around in time: 1974 in chapter one, then 2009 in chapter two, and then back in time to the early 1980's.  This was clever of Wolitzer.  She sets up Jules as the Everywoman we can relate to at the camp and in Chapter 2 we find out that Jules is still the Everywoman out of the group.  Jules and her wonderful, but very ordinary, husband Dennis have a good marriage and Normal Careers as a therapist (Jules) and a medical tech (Dennis).   Meanwhile we also find out in Chapter Two, via Ash and Ethan's Christmas Letter, that Ash and Ethan are fabulously wealthy and now married to each other with kids.  How did that happen, we wonder.   And do Jules and Dennis receive The Christmas Letter simply because they are on a very long list of recipients that includes people who long ago were friends?  No, we discover that Jules and Ash are still best friends and talk to each other all the time.   But that doesn't mean that Jules isn't jealous of Ethan and Ash's successful lives. 

Jules spends much of her life thinking that she is uninteresting because she leads a Normal Life and not a life in The Arts.  She loves her husband despite, or maybe because, of the fact that he is so normal.  And at one point, in a moment of truth between them, Dennis dares to tell Jules that her friends really aren't that interesting. Wolitzer doesn't shy away from showing what hard work a good marriage is.  In fact, the life of Jules could have been the subject of a Small Novel, otherwise known as a Woman's Novel.  In fact, Wolitzer could have written a Small Novel about any one of the characters.  Or she could have written a series of Small Novels that would, eventually, cover the same characters and their lives.  But instead she chose to write a Big Novel.  And it is big - in length, in scope and in ideas.

The story Wolitzer chooses to tell spans many decades - the years between the resignation of Nixon through the AIDS epidemic, the 90's bubble years, the fall of the Towers and the financial crisis of 2008, ending in the present day as the friends enter their mid 50's. One of the things I liked was that each of these historical events happens off stage, it isn't dwelled on by Wolitzer.  Jules remembers that the camp was brought together to watch Nixon leaving office - but there is no actual scene in the novel depicting that moment. The fall of the Towers isn't shown.  The AIDS epidemic is introduced to the characters exactly as I remember being introduced to it in the early 1980's - the characters hear that someone who was gay suddenly died and there is no real explanation why.  Only later when AIDS was identified did you suddenly realize "Oh, he died of AIDS. Oh. "

This is also a Big Novel in the sense of having a lot of characters.  Besides the six campers who become friends for life, and Dennis, we meet Ash and Goodman's parents, who impose a family secret on Ash that she shares only with Jules (Ash's father is an investment banker at Drexel Burnam and I waited throughout the novel for its fall to happen.) We catch glimpses of Jules' widowed mother and sister Ellen.  There is the elderly couple who run the camp.  There is Jonah's Japanese American lover who is HIV positive, as well as Jonah's folk singer mother.   There are even Moonies.

But what makes this a Big Novel is that it is a novel that explores a Big Idea - an exploration of talent and lack of talent and and the affect of talent, and its lack, on those with talent and the people around them.  It also explores the relationship between talent and money (and the lack of money). Can friendship survive unequal wealth?   Can marriage?  Jules must deal with the fact that she really isn't talented, while her friends are.  Ash, on the other hand, is talented but could certainly never support herself on that talent - the fact that she came from a wealthy family and is married to the even wealthier Ethan allows her to become a director of small, critically acclaimed feminist off-Broadway plays.  Ash is talented but Jules is aware that Ash's ability to use her talent is dependent on her being supported by Ethan. This doesn't seem to bother Ash - but if Jules was married to Ethan would it have bothered her?

Ethan is a generous soul and is willing to help out Jules and Dennis, but that bothers Jules.  How much can you accept from wealthier friends in order to be able to travel in the same circles before the friendship is threatened?  Do you let them always pick up the tab at dinner?  Do you let them pay for vacations to fantastic places?  Do you let them give you gifts of money?  (I was pleased that Wolitzer was smart enough to frame this question as a gift of cash and not a loan.  In my experience - loans are much harder on friendships, making clear that one friend is indebted to the other friend in ways other than monetary.  A gift is ... a gift.)

Wolitzer also asks us to consider the price paid by a person who stifles real talent.  Jonah is a natural musician but because of an incident that occurred to him as a child, he refuses to allow himself to be even an amateur musician and while he develops a successful career in robotics he does not find it fulfilling.  Cathy, the dancer, knows early on that she will not be a dancer because of her physique and instead becomes a successful businesswoman.  Is she fulfilled?  We don't know because the friends lose touch with Cathy after a terrible incident.  And then there is Goodman.  Did he ever really have talent or did everyone just assume he did because he was so charismatic?

Only Ethan, naturally talented, manages through hard work and some luck and good advice, to become successful beyond everyone's wildest dreams. He is also generous.  On the other hand, Ethan becomes a workaholic and is ashamed of how he reacts to adversity in his own personal life.

At one point Ethan decides to use his wealth to bring "good" to the world by fighting child labor in Asia.  Ethan is one of the Most Powerful People in the World.  Is Ethan's high profile use of his wealth any more "good" than Jules' work with her low income therapy patients?  Why are good works by the wealthy valued more than the good that is brought by the less wealthy as part of their daily lives?  Why does Jules value her work less than Ethan's work?

And, finally,  is a novel about Big Ideas like these, written over a broad scope of time with many characters, inherently more worthy than a  Small Novel about only Jules and Dennis and the many issues of their daily lives that Wolitzer might have written?  It seemed to me, as I finished this novel, that this final question is the disguised-in-plain-sight biggest of the Big Ideas of this novel.  If Wolitzer leaves us wishing for more about Cathy or Ash or even Ash's mother Betty (or, for that matter, even about Jules' mother), she leaves us hungry for the kind of Small Novels that sometimes get characterized as Women's Fiction.  This is a wonderful Big Novel, but that doesn't make it more worthy than smaller novels.  It does however probably make it more marketable to what is known as a wider audience.  An audience that includes men.

Wolitzer is certainly aware of this.  And this Big Novel is certainly being marketed in a way that won't automatically turn men off.  Wolitzer must be aware of this too.  She wrote a New York Times Book Review essay last year  in which she pointed out how novels by women are often marketed as "women's" novels when novels written by men about the same subject matter are called universal stories.  She also noted that the cover art of novels written by women often make it unlikely a man will want to pick it up to read.

The Interestings has, I presume due to this very essay, gender neutral cover art.  When I went to my local Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy, the clerk assuredly led me over to where it was supposed to be shelved - but it wasn't there.  Puzzled, he looked it up on his computer.  It had just come out; he remembered shelving it.  "Well," he said, looking up at me, "it's already sold out."   I didn't mind waiting for the next shipment.  I just hope some of those early buyers were men.