I’m about twenty years too young to feel much nostalgia over the 1960s but I’m exactly the right age to understand that childhood dreams don’t necessarily translate into adult life.
The Interestings (Riverhead Books, 2013) starts out with six teenagers at a summer camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods. It’s a camp for artistically-inclined youth and for each of these six, it’s the best place on earth. Their summers spent at Spirit-in-the-Woods are their escape from parents, pressure, and other pubescent problems. We follow Julie Jacobson as she enters this little group and becomes Jules, the aspiringcomic actress. Each of the six have their own talents and dreams and, initially, each of them are equally determined to become something great.
But what happens among friends who all have artistic dreams but are not all equally gifted? What does it really take to fulfill those initial dreams? Talent, sure, but money, connections, and a bit of straight-up good luck never hurt either. What happens to a friendship when you’re both talented but only one of you is successful?
The Interestings delves into all of these questions as well as several more that dwell outside of the art world. Jules continues to be the main character – although we delve into the thoughts of Ethan, Ash, and Jonah as well. These four – the four who maintain contact into adulthood and beyond – form the core of the novel. Jules, ultimately unsuccessful as an actress, settles down as a therapist and marries Dennis Boyd, a decidedly non-artistic ultrasound technician. Their marriage is mostly a happy one though their financial struggles are a continuing theme throughout the novel. Jonah, a talented and beautiful musician, gives up his music for reasons he can’t reveal even to his best friends. Ethan becomes a hugely successful animator and Ash, who becomes his wife, benefits from his connections, perhaps more than from her own talents.
The tensions and jealousies present in this friend group may seem obvious but Wolitzer doesn’t take any easy ways out. These friendships are real and complicated. These people love and care for each other – they keep each others’ histories and secrets – but that doesn’t mean they don’t envy and covet elements of each others’ lives. Wolitzer doesn’t shy away from any of these tough issues but she delves skillfully into them and creates characters that you love.
One of my favourite relationships in the novel was the marriage of Jules and Dennis. I thought Wolitzer’s treatment of a multi-decade partnership where one member has a sometimes debilitating mental health issue was beautifully done. She really created a team and a story that I could root for.
The Interestings covers a broad expanse of time, both in terms of the characters’ lives, and in late 20th/early 21st century history. Wolitzer handles both masterfully.