This book has been floating around on my radar for a while. I'm very conscious that when I label a book post "Books 2012" or "Books 2014", this means the year I've READ the book, not the year the book was published. There are a variety of reasons I often don't read books the minute they emerge. The economic one, obviously - hardcover books are expensive, and unless it's an author I ferociously adore I don't buy hardcovers, and library queues are insanely long for new releases. There's also a touch of reverse snobbery, of which I'm not proud - I don't like reading something just because a bunch of people 'in the know' profess that it's the Next Big Thing. Then I experience this panicky backlash, where it suddenly feels like everyone in the world has read the damned thing except me, and I have to hustle to be able to offer any kind of valid opinion. It's all very tiresome. Anyway.
There was the added impediment that the title put me off a little - The Interestings? Oh my, don't we think highly of ourselves. It was a little embarrassing to find out within the first five pages or so that this epithet was actually meant to be ironic. Also, I kept confusing the book with The Luminaries. (Crap, I just read the synopsis for The Luminaries and it looks really freaking interesting and I feel compelled to read it next. Okay, focus).
This book recalled to me, for obvious reasons, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, which I reviewed - holy crap - five years ago. Maybe I should send this book to my brother-in-law and see what he thinks of it. There are huge differences, but again here there is the friendship between two married couples of unequal social standing and the sense of a large span of the characters' lives tenderly cradled between two covers.
The synopsis from Goodreads: From bestselling author Meg Wolitzer a dazzling, panoramic novel about what becomes of early talent, and the roles that art, money, and even envy can play in close friendships.
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.
Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.
Jules is a fascinating character - incredibly flawed (multiple times I found myself thinking "oh my GOD, she's such an infuriating twit!") and yet sympathetic (to me, anyway) because of her self-awareness. I also saw an uncomfortable amount of myself in her - the agonizing desire to be more talented and successful than you know you actually are, the tendency to be seduced by people who seem more sophisticated and worldly and the unlovely willingness to do almost anything to stay in that charmed circle. I also loved Dennis, Jules's husband, the odd man out who often sees the circle of friends more clearly than anyone. Ash seemed a little too perfect, but some people do, and Ethan seemed as realistic as artistic geniuses ever do.
There were times when the envy thing seemed a little overdone - Jules's speechifying about it seemed too affected, when everything she was saying was abundantly clear from the context. But this was only on one or two rare occasions where I felt pulled out of the story. For the most part, I was completely absorbed in the story - I read most of it in one day - which was wonderful after a few weeks of lurching, painful, unsatisfying reading experiences.
This type of book has come to seem very American to me - not in a bad way, or even an especially identifiable way (other than, I guess, that it takes place in America, and is populated by American characters. Um....). There is something incredibly gratifying sometimes in sinking into a story like this, where the insights flow naturally, where the writing isn't incredibly self-congratulatory or ornamental, where the sweep of the story is punctuated by tiny, wonderful details that are the greatest joy of reading, where the people do often seem like people you've met or seen in the mirror, where the author is clear-eyed but not cruel.
Quite a few people on Goodreads didn't like the book at all, which always gives me a moment of self-consciousness while posting my four-star rating. A favourite criticism is "this book isn't interesting AT ALL." I would have to say that I disagree.