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The InterestingsReview - The Interestings
by Meg Wolitzer
Penguin Audio, 2013
Review by Christian Perring
Jul 9th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 28)

There's a lot going on in this novel of the lives of 6 interconnected people by the prodigious Meg Wolitzer.  It starts in 1974 when the group of New York teenagers, attending a summer arts camp in rural Massachusetts, ironically name themselves "The Interestings."  They are smart, self-aware, well-read, talented, and on the edge of very full lives.  The story follows them over the next three decades: Ethan, Cathy, Jonah, brother and sister Goodman and Ash, and Jules.  Ethan is ugly but he goes on to be enormously successful in his work as an animator.  He marries Ash, who works as a theatre director.  Jules becomes a psychotherapist, and marries Dennis, who turns out to have major depression.  Cathy aims to be a dancer, but she struggles to achieve success.  Jonah becomes an academic, and also works out that he is gay, and eventually finds a long term partner.  Goodman's life goes off the rails, and he becomes a sad figure of unfulfilled opportunity. 

Following these characters over their lives makes for compelling reading, or listening in the case of the unabridged audiobook performed by Jen Tullock, who gives the characters a fair amount of personality, although it still takes some focus to get clear on who is who in the early chapters.  As it becomes clear that we are following them through their lives, it is more important to trace their early selves with their later selves, so it is helpful to remember the early incidents in their interactions with each other, and what they implied about the future.  Ethan had a crush on Jules in camp, and they had a few moments of intimacy, but it did not work out. 

The writing wears its appeal on its sleeve.  Heavy on dialog, the plot proceeds swiftly, and Wolitzer paints her scenes vividly.  The narrative skips backwards and forwards in time, which adds to the sophistication of the experience in reading through the story.  The main characters have complex histories, and it is easy to understand their struggles.  She brings in plenty of interesting ideas about what it means for a life to flourish, and how some people are held back by different kinds of difficulties.  Her focus on sex is particularly interesting, giving small details that reveal surprising amounts about the characters. 

So The Interestings is definitely one of the notable books of the year.  It is rich in its ideas, and at 480 pages, or over 15 hours in audiobook, it is a substantial work.  Nevertheless, even with the broad range of success and failure among the original six, it feels constricted in its scope of characters of people from relatively affluent families with the usual sorts of problems.  It is a book that will especially appeal to readers who can relate to these characters.    

 

© 2013 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York

 


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