What happens when that charming adolescent sense of being special follows you into adulthood?
That's the story of Jules Jacobson, the heroine of Meg Wolitzer's newest novel. The Interestings is about a group of teens who meet in the '70s at an artsy summer camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods.
Despite their precocious, pre-sophisticate irony, they're a group we all can recognize. There's Ash, the remote beauty; and her brother, Goodman, a heartthrob who builds teetering models of bridges and thinks "Günter Grass is basically God." There's Cathy, who wants to be a dancer despite her womanly curves; and guitarist Jonah, the son of a famous folk singer.
Then there's lumpy, homely Ethan, his humor a shield, who is already working on an animated series that will make his fortune. He's in love with Jules, though she can't imagine why. Her brief time at Spirit-in-the-Woods is the only time she's ever shined — as an actress, a comic and, most miraculously, a friend.
They mock themselves with the sobriquet "The Interestings," but members of the group, minus Jules, are certain of their place in the pantheon. "Anaïs Nin and Günter Grass both have umlauts," Ethan muses in one of their late-night, pot-fueled conversations. "Maybe that's the key to their success."
But life, alas, has other plans. We learn upfront that Ethan (to no one's surprise) builds an empire out of his animated Simpsons-like sitcom. He marries Ash (to everyone's surprise) and the two morph into a disgustingly rich and successful duo. Meanwhile, Jonah gives up music and retreats into MIT, only revealing he's gay after he's made sure himself. Goodman becomes a near-fugitive, Cathy an outcast from the group. And Jules, a failed actress turned therapist, is now married to a nice guy named Dennis, still living in a walk-up with their rambunctious daughter. She remains as puzzled by her inclusion as she was at 16.
Meg Wolitzer is also the author of The Uncoupling.
Nina Subin/Penguin Group USA
Nina Subin/Penguin Group USA
And here is where Wolitzer's strength lies. Most novelists use exposition to get from one point to another, but for Wolitzer, these vivid landscapes are where we see the subtle gradations of character and thought — vistas far more interesting than any destination. The teens, to Jules, were like "royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal." If Wolitzer decided to write a phone book, I'd pre-order it on Amazon.
We're not really used to this type of long-haul narrative anymore, one in which fortunes rise and fall through decades, not plot points. It owes something to Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk's novel of another failed actress turned housewife. But it also goes back to Mary McCarthy's The Group, Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, even Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady.The Interestings, like these books, travels through the flash points of its era: acid trips, AIDS, Moonies, Sept. 11. It, like they, needs to spread out, because it is about changes in the world, not only in the characters.
We're used to what happens when people lose each other, not when they, against all odds, cleave. There is an actual tragedy that steers the fate of the group, but this fades alongside the mystery of what's kept them together and what it costs them all — in terms of success, love, family and, most pointedly for Jules, money. What happens when seeking fame turns into being grateful you've found a place anywhere? It's not pretty. But it is, as teenagers usually are not, interesting.
Lizzie Skurnick is the editor of Lizzie Skurnick Books, which reprints classic young-adult literature.