If you’re going to call your novel The Interestings then it’d better be well, interesting. Thankfully, Wolitzer manages this with aplomb.
The Interestings are six friends who meet at an arts summer camp in the 1970s, aged 15/16, and bestow themselves with the name in that ironic fashion predominant amongst those in their late teens/early twenties.
“From this day forward, because we are clearly the most interesting people who ever fucking lived,” said Ethan, “because we are just so fucking compelling, our brains swollen with intellectual thoughts, let us be known as the Interestings. And let anyone who meets us fall down dead in our path from just how fucking interesting we are.”
The six friends are:
- Julie Jacobson – the outsider. At camp on a scholarship. ‘…from an undistinguished town sixty miles east of New York City’. Wants to be an actress. She will leave the camp with newfound confidence; the beginnings of life-long friendships, and a new(ish) name: Jules.
- Ash Wolf – ‘…waifish, openhearted, a beauty…’. From a wealthy New York family. Wants to be an actress.
- Goodman Wolf – ‘…big, blunt and unsettling’. Arrogant, veering between forceful and lazy. Continually at loggerheads with his father over his lack of application to his studies. Wants to be an architect. Ash’s older brother.
- Ethan Figman – ‘…thick bodied, unusually ugly, his features appearing a little bit flattened, as if pressed against a mime’s invisible glass wall…’. Everyone likes Ethan, he’s a nice, friendly guy. An animator.
- Jonah Bay – son of famous folk singer Suzannah. ‘…a good-looking boy with blue-black hair that fell to his shoulders, and a leather string around his neck…’.
- Cathy Kiplinger – ‘…big and blond and far more womanly than most girls could be comfortable with at age fifteen’. A dancer.
The novel covers the lives of the friends, showing how they deal with the big things in life – work, relationships, children, money, death, religion, depression – as well as some of the minutiae of day-to-day existence.
Wolitzer structures the novel in a non-linear format, so we know early on that Jules goes on to live in NYC, relinquishes her dream of becoming an actress, starts a psychotherapy practice and marries Dennis, an ultrasound technician. Jules and Dennis are good friends with Ethan and Ash Figman who have married and are incredibly wealthy following Ethan’s success with his cartoon ‘Figland’.
Their lives were much too different now for Jules to have kept up a sustained level of envy. Mostly, she had given up her envy, had let it recede or dissipate so that she wasn’t chronically plagued by it. But still, whenever the Christmas letter arrived each year, cataloging the specifics of the enormous life of Ethan and Ash beat by beat, Jules indulged in a few dark thoughts.
The novel largely centres around these two couples after an incident one new year splinters The Interestings but Wolitzer dips into the lives of the other characters, fleshing out their stories at different points in their trajectories.
Reading a book as dense and complex as this one (and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all), I was intrigued as to how Wolitzer would drive the narrative forward while giving us these fabulous character studies. The answer, I think, is two-fold. Firstly, the non-linear structure leads you to want to fill in the gaps – how did X happen? Why did X happen? Where’s Y? – and secondly, there are threads left dangling at certain points which are picked up later, stitched together a little more and then returned to again at a later point. One of these threads (which I won’t name for fear of a huge spoiler) runs almost the length of the novel and although you know it’s going to explode at some point, is spectacular when it does.
The Interestings is a fantastic novel. I cannot overemphasise how much I loved it. It has already garnered comparisons to Franzen and Eugenides which (as much as it irritates me that female novelists seem to need these comparisons in order to sell books to men) are well deserved. The only issue that some readers seem to be having is that Jules is ‘unlikeable’. I have so much to say on the nonsense of unlikeable characters that it would be a post of its own but what I will say about Jules is put yourself in her shoes: if your best friends were incredibly wealthy and had been successful in the type of work you had to relinquish because you realised you’d never be good enough at it, while you scraped by, wouldn’t you be envious? Just a little bit, no matter how lovely and generous they were? And if all characters were likeable wouldn’t that make them less, well, interesting?
Thanks to Random House/Chatto & Windus for the review copy.