Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tuesday on the Margins: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

What? To make NaBloPoMo you have to crack a few eggs. Or something.

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. 



12 comments:

Steph Lovelady said...

I've had this one on my radar, too. Good to have you vouch for it.

I kind of liked The Ten-Year Nap and kind of didn't. And like you with this one, I was rather put off by the title.

Maggie said...

I was prepared to dislike this as some kind of navel gazing novel, but I actually found it entertaining. The piece about Ash's brother was kind of out there, but the rest of it was a pretty solid look at what happens to teenage dreams etc. when one grows up.

Bibliomama said...

It was a little out there - it was like a slightly contrived way to show how a wealthy family would act in that circumstance, and to throw into relief who would stand with the family and who would stand up to them.

Amy said...

This book is sitting on my shelf, and every time I'm ready to start a new book its colourful cover calls to me. Maybe it will be next.

Hannah said...

I need to start writing all these book titles down. I'm getting enough sleep now (most of the time) so suddenly I can follow plots again, and I am so overwhelmed every time I go into a library that I end up panicking and leaving empty-handed.

YOU NEED TO HELP ME.

Lynn said...

This is one of the few books in my life that I have abandoned. I had it out from the library, which is always a high pressure situation as I must read it inside of three weeks (requiring a huge effort for me), and I tried, I really tried, but I just could not get interested. I don't think I made it past page 50 despite picking it up and putting it down 100 times.

I will leave it on my to-read list for someday but something about it just didn't do it for me.

Nicole said...

Is she the author of the 10 Year Nap? I suppose I could look up this information if I wasn't so lazy. This is the kind of book that is right up my alley. Noting.

Sarah said...

I liked it. It went on a little too long, tho. And I felt it was, I don't know, somewhat inconsequential.

clara said...

This book was weird for me; I didn't have a problem getting into it or finishing it, it was a quick, compelling read, primarily because the characters were so well drawn and by well drawn I think I mean relatable because of my current age and stage in life.

But then when I went to rate it on goodreads I felt very empty about it. I don't ever need to read it again but I couldn't pick out what I really liked or didn't...

It read like a really long commentary on ordinary life. So few novels really nail down how boring life is and how simultaneously fascinating because it's OUR life and I think this one did it well. Without pretence of complicated plot. Of course even drawing a non-complicated plot requires a lot of artistry so maybe I am under-appreciating Ms. Wolitzer. I did like this one better than her other books for what that's worth.

(I recently read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and this book blew me away and made me want to read it again immediately. It's from 2010 so you're safe.)

slow panic said...

I need to put this on my list. I've hit a weird reading block for the past few months and haven't been able to pick up a book. So weird. I'm blaming the stress. And the new dog.....

Mary Lynn said...

I'm intrigued. Meg Wolitzer is a writer I have a love/hate relationship. I couldn't even finish The Ten-Year Nap, but I absolutely loved The Uncoupling. I actually respect that in a writer...it means she's pushing the boundaries, rather than using the same formula every time.

Courtney said...

Ha! I'm just like you - I get stubborn and refuse to read "the next big thing" until I feel like everyone else in the world has read it already.

I'll have to look into this book. Sounds quite good.