THE INTERESTINGS. By Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead Books. 468 pages. $27.95.
Meg Wolitzer begins her ninth novel, “The Interestings,” on an early July night in a “long-evaporated year,” 1974, it turns out.
Wolitzer makes the point that 1974 is also the year of Richard Nixon’s resignation.
The setting is artful, in a long ago personal time, with all its potential for nostalgia, and in a cautionary historical time, with all its associations of overreaching, disgrace, and betrayal.
Wolitzer introduces her circle of characters, six friends who meet at a high school arts camp, when their adult futures are still pending. All the campers have been singled out for their talent. Her six have formed an even more select group; they call themselves the “Interestings.”
Each of them feels special, and a cut above the unbearable herd: “They were gathering because the world was unbearable, and they themselves were not.”
Wolitzer’s novel traces their paths into middle age, as they wrestle with the fallout of inflated expectations.
“The Interestings” is filtered through the perspective of Jules Jacobsen, an outsider from the Long Island suburbs who can’t understand why the Interestings chose her. The rest of them are “like royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.”
Two siblings, Goodman and Ash Wolf, set the high-culture, glossy standard. Goodman is lazy and charismatic, with dreamboat looks. Ash is delicate and thoughtful; she’ll make it eventually as a director of feminist plays.
Ethan Figman is the group’s one genius. All his life, he’s been perfecting a cartoon, “Figland,” that will become a “Simpsons”-wattage television show.
Jonah Bay is the group’s lost boy, the sweet and tormented son of a famous folk singer. Cathy Kiplinger is a talented dancer whose womanly body will disqualify her for a career. They begin the novel poised for big moments that won’t come for most of them.
This is when “The Interestings” gets interesting. While the giddy opening chapters are fun to read, the long slide away from early promise is Wolitzer’s real subject. She introduces the novel with an epigraph from Mary Robison: “... to own only a little talent ... was an awful, plaguing thing ... being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.”
We’re warned early in the novel that two of the Interestings fall away from the group for reasons that are shocking.
The other four remain close. Ethan Figman marries Ash Wolf, becomes a mega-star and remains as kind as he ever was. Jules considers them bullet-proof as a couple. Jonah and Jules meanwhile struggle with the fate of those who don’t have quite enough talent.
Jules’s coming of age is a long time (really too long) in coming. She tries to stifle her envy of Ethan and Ash, still her best friends in the world, but it’s always close to the surface.
Every year, when the Figman/Wolf Christmas letter comes, she lets it sit for days, knowing their gleaming life will outshine her ordinary accomplishments. The very word “ordinary” haunts her. Her story is a long letting go of false definitions: of happiness, love, even “interesting.”
The years are evaporating, as the opening line establishes. They will “shorten and fly,” and the losses will pile up. Wolitzer has written a big, chewy novel that stares full-face at youthful pretension and middle-aged foolishness.
A few quibbles: Wolitzer hangs an arsenal of guns on the wall, to borrow Chekhov’s metaphor, and every one of them goes off. It may be a little too neat. The novel is long, and might have done without the catch-up social data (reminding us of everything from the clean-up of New York’s streets to the commercialization of art). Still, these are insignificant distractions in a novel that delivers so much pleasure.
The beating heart of “The Interestings” is the evolution of a life, with its fitful alternating between hope and sorrow.
At the novel’s end, Wolitzer compares the show to a film reel: “As if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, as strange and endless that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.