Having read all but one of her novels I was looking forward to Meg Wolitzer’s new book. It has the kind of structure much beloved by film and TV writers – a group of young people form an enduring friendship which survives the buffeting of adulthood and all that the outside world throws at it – putting me in mind of that old 80s favourite thirtysomething but Wolitzer keeps it fresh.
Six teenagers meet at a summer camp run by a couple determined to foster artistic talent. Julie is the aspiring comic actress, ashamed of her background a few rungs down from her new friends. Ash is the privileged beauty, determined to work in the theatre while her arrogant brother Goodman is the bad boy. Cathy is the sexy girl already lumbered with a body too voluptuous for her longed-for dancing career. Jonah is the beautiful boy, son of a fading folk singer, quiet and musically talented. And Ethan is both the artist who devises the cartoon world of Figland to escape his parents’ eternal rowing, and the moral compass of the group. These six dub themselves the interestings in that ‘ironic’ way that fifteen-year-olds do, while Julie becomes the altogether more acceptable Jules. Over three years, Jules and Ash become best friends, while Ethan falls first for Jules then Ash whom he will marry. Life happens: Jules is saddled with envy of Ash and Ethan’s extraordinary wealth as Figland becomes a worldwide TV phenomenon and her acting dreams fail; Dennis, Jules’ husband, struggles with depression; Jonah’s musical talent is stifled by a horrible act of exploitation. Friends come and go but these central four remain steadfast, even under the strain of Goodman’s sudden departure in dreadful circumstances which throws a long dark shadow over them.
Beginning in 1974, The Interestings criss-crosses the fifty years it spans with the greatest of ease, filling in a back story here, flashing back to a memory there, all the time weaving in details of the enormous social change taking place with the lightest of touches. This is the post-Vietnam generation – indeed it’s Woltizer’s own. She was born in 1959, the same year as her characters. It’s a time of huge social upheaval: changing expectations for women and their disappointments, the horror of AIDS and its easing, 9/11 and its fallout, the internet and its effects, the financial collapse are all touched on but never with a heavy hand – the only surprising omission is the election of Obama which hardly gets a mention. Wolitzer’s characters are engaging and fallible, her story utterly absorbing – if there’s a quibble it’s that Ash is a little too good to be true but it’s a small one. This is a novel to sit back and lose yourself in. The interestings may not have become what they had hoped back in 1974 – and who does manage to achieve everything they wanted at fifteen – but I found them riveting and I’m going to miss spending time with them.