Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

I read a really excellent review for The Interestings which was instrumental in my picking it up to read, predominantly because of the reviewer’s gently scathing view of how books about families were looked down upon until men started writing books about families. Meg Wolitzer, obviously, is a woman and has, according to the reviewer, been writing excellent books about families for several years and because it is now – thanks to those male writers out there – ‘cool’ to be writing about families, her newest offering is set to make her name more solidly recognized within the public and literary domain.

As for 'The Interestings', they are a group of teenaged New Yorkers who attend a yearly arts camp and strike up a set of friendships and intimacies that will follow most of them far into their adult lives. From innocent beginnings, however, a dramatic act a couple of years into their group life sets waves rolling through their future  that, while they may get smaller as time passes, never fully disappear. Chopping and changing between past and present, young and middle-aged Interestings, we see the changing of their lives, the ebb and flow of their friendships, the good and the bad within each of them.

We have Cathy, a talented dancer, but cursed by her body shape to never be more in that arena beyond her teenage years, and after ‘the event’ she drops out of their group physically, though perhaps not emotionally. Secondly, Goodman, Cathy’s occasional paramour, and the cause of all the trouble. Ash, Goodman’s sister, a fey hypocrite who lies to her husband about Goodman’s disappearance and refuses (despite the pursuit throughout her life for women’s equality) to even consider the possibility of Goodman’s guilt – a man who never grows up, relying instead on his family to provide for him and never taking responsibility for a single action he makes. Or perhaps Ash is simply unable to consider Goodman’s guilt because of what it would mean?

Fourth, we have Ethan. Ethan is Ethan, and that’s about all there is to it. He gets caught up in the opportunities afforded him, and if he lies to his wife on occasion or struggles to connect with his son, hiding behind his work, is it any worse than Ash’s lies and denials? Jonah, meanwhile, spends his entire life overshadowed by the events of his tweens. Would it have been any different for him if he had told somebody what happened? Or would he still feel the same about it all anyway?

And, lastly, Jules. She is so determined and desperate to be away from what she feels is her small family and small life, she abandons it at the drop of a hat to infuse herself in the busy and glamorous city life of her 'Interestings' friends. Ironic that she winds ups spending so much of her life struggling to make ends meet and envying Ash, even after she grows up.

Each member of The Interestings is likeable and unlikeable, each one of them trying to escape something or find something. Is Jules cruel in the abandonment of her childhood? It’s ironic that she’s so desperate to grow up when she is young, only to spend much of her adult life desperate recapture those feelings she had when The Interestings first came together, trampling everyone in her way to get what she thinks she wants only to find it’s not what she thought it would be once she gets there. Is this what we are all really like? I guess so: the good bits and the bad bits; perhaps it’s only that by reading five, six lives condensed into 500 pages makes everything so much more apparent, human behaviors more alarming somehow than how we see each day as we take on our own lives.

The passing of time and the changing of the New York streets was perhaps most interesting to me, along with the subtle feminism that Wolitzer works into the book: just because you’ve slept with a person before doesn’t mean it’s not rape if a girl says no this time, or asks you to stop; and the fact that any media attention Ash receives for her theatre work always comes with the addendum of who her husband is, her work never held up purely for it’s own merit, as if she is worth that bit more merely by being married to who she is married to.

The Interestings, thus, is an intriguing and thoughtfully interwoven story of life, love and friendship, the twists and turns we cannot predict, the choices we do or don’t take. Life is an odd thing and Wolitzer shows this without reservation.

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