The best way to describe Meg Wolitzer’s forthcoming, intimate epic of a novel, The Interestings, might be this:
Or it might be that one ballet move where the dancer twirls and returns to the same point, over and over, like at 9:30 in the amazing final dance of the amazing Center Stage.
The Interestings is about a group of friends, Jules, Jonah, Ash, Ethan, Goodman, and Cathy, who meet at summer camp as teenagers and remain connected, diverging and converging in different ways throughout their lives. There is no fixed chronology as the narrative goes between past and present and future, sharing the whole of these people’s lives. This telegraphing through time, over and over, is immensely satisfying.
The cornerstone of the book is Jules, the middle-class, average-looking, moderately talented woman who is also intelligent and witty and never satisfied. Ethan has loved her since he was fifteen but when she firmly tells him they will only be friends, he moves on, eventually falling in love with and marrying Ash, who is the good daughter in her family. Ethan is the genius of the group, who creates a wildly successful animated series, skyrocketing to fame and enormous wealth. Jonah is the son of a famous folk singer and though he loves music, he turns to engineering after a bizarre and troubling year during his childhood. Goodman, Ash’s brother, is aimless and charming and troubled. For a time he dates Cathy, who is on the periphery of the group in some ways, until something terrible sends Goodman away and Cathy, away from the group, and into a different kind of life.
Each character is beautifully drawn. We truly get to know them—the good and the bad and the flawed and the true. Often, these people are infuriating but they’re infuriating because their pettiness and their dissatisfactions and their small hopes are so relatable.
Throughout the years, as Ethan and Ash make the most of their careers and start a family, Jules marries a good man named Dennis and they have a child, Jonah falls in and out of a relationship with a lawyer named Robert and finds his way back to what he really wants, Goodman and Cathy drift along their own paths, but the group keeps coming back to this common history, their time at Spiriti-in-the-Woods, the ways they originally bonded, and how they found each other endlessly interesting, for reasons outsiders would probably never understand.
Their lives travel along the rounded path of the infinity symbol, that interminable loop, but no matter how far they go, they keep coming together, arriving at the same past, present and future.
The writing is so lovely. There are so many absolutely perfect observations about men and women, and people and how we just… are. I was particularly intrigued by bodily descriptions—how people look and age, the ways their bodies fill up space and are beautiful and ugly and how, eventually, our bodies will always fail us.
There’s a moment when Jules and Dennis are going to have sex for the first time. She decides to let him climb up to his loft bed first so he cannot see the potentially unflattering view of her and the way Wolitzer describes what one would look like, climbing up a ladder naked, is sublime.
Alongside the personal histories of this group, we also see how much this country and particularly NYC changes over nearly forty years and these details are interwoven, seamlessly.
The Interestings is not a perfect novel. At times, it feels like a bit of a meandering mess but I mean that in the best possible way. What I particularly loved about this book is the mess, and moreover, that the novel is long. In recent years, we have seen male writers produce interminable books, and it seems rare that women are given the opportunity to write to a place of excess.
Wolitzer has that opportunity and she uses it well. The novel comes in at nearly five hundred pages and I would have read this book if it were twice as long. The writing was just so assured, so engaging, yes, I am gushing but I really did love it, that even during the messier parts, the writer had my attention, and more importantly, the story of these people, these vainglorious, somewhat hopeless people, also kept bringing me back to the same, thrilled place, over and over and over.