By Carolyn Quimby | @CarolynQuimby, @WornBookSmell
Well, that was an interesting read (I apologize in advance for all the uninteresting “interesting” puns that will be made).
After seeing Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings on nearly every “Must Read List” and “Top Books of the Year” in 2013, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
I had read a fair amount of reviews (both positive and negative) of this book and there has been one common theme: the thing that most people hated about the novel is what I loved. The biggest critique of the book? “Nothing happens;” “there’s no plot;” “the characters weren’t interesting.” Once again, that word “interesting” pops up. But, while I have my own criticisms of the books, the above ones are what I loved about the book. Let me explain by beginning at the plot (yes, there is one). MINOR AND MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:
In 1974, six teenagers meet at an artsy summer camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods. Self-dubbed “The Interestings,” because they’re obsessed with irony, the group includes Ash, the delicate, emotional feminist; Ethan, the average-looking, supremely-talented animator; Cathy, the strong, needy, curvy dancer; Goodman, the jack-ass, “handsome” underachiever; Jonah, the quiet, beautiful musician; and Julie (turned Jules), the witty, awkward, jealous outsider-turned-insider. Set in New York and spanning over three decades, the novel touches on historical moments, such as Nixon’s resignation, the AIDS epidemic, and September 11th. Though Jules is the main protagonist, the novel switches between perspectives and shifts back and forth in time to witness the character’s past and future successes, failures, hardships, and heartbreaks.
1. The thing I loved the most about this book is how realistic it is. Sometimes the most interesting people become painfully ordinary; sometimes they were ordinary all along. Personally, I’m dealing with a lot existential crises and feelings of “it’s already too late to do all the things I want to do,” so I really connected with this book’s simultaneous sense of hope and hopelessness. For a book about Interestings, it’s the acceptance of the ordinary that truly makes this book worthwhile.
I won’t give it away, but I truly believe the last sentence of novel is the most insightful of the whole book. Realizing that life can pass by without you leaving a mark or leaving a much smaller mark than you had intended is a huge part of growing up, and it’s something I have been grappling with myself. It’s accepting that time persists and you make of it what you can, you love who you can, and come to terms with who you are and what you have. You don’t always get your dream job or house or life, but you have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.
2. Meg Wolitzer’s prose is quiet. Her sentences are pretty simple, but her observations (while not earth shattering) ring painfully true. It’s the small moments of tenderness and love between friends that defines this book; friends who have seen the best and worst of each other; who have seized their passion or lost it; who have achieved their wildest dreams or been flattened by reality.
We see all the major moments of their lives–sexual awakenings, graduations, careers, depression, sexual assault, marriage, children, sickness–and we love (or hate) them for it. We watch them ebb and flow, entering and exiting each others lives, with a fluidity that really mirrors life. It’s the idea that the people important to you as a child or teenager truly shape you as you grow up, and can continue to shape you as an adult (for better or worse). Wolitzer is a master of capturing the small moments that create a friendship.
1. The sexual assault story line from the beginning rubbed me the wrong way. I understand Woltizer was showing how teenagers would react to a rape accusation, but as a staunch feminist I was disgusted by the reactions of some of the characters (particularly Ash and Jules). It was a complicated situation with Ash’s brother being the accused, but Jules is so obsessed with the idea of being accepted into the “Labyrinth” (Ash and Goodman’s massive Manhattan apartment and life) that she blames Cathy and defends Goodman.
Later in the novel, Jules admits that she did not truly know what she believed back then because she wanted to be accepted by Ash and Goodman’s family. She eventually comes around to the truth, kind of. However, the scene of Jules sitting across from a broken, crying Cathy asking whether or not she misinterpreted Goodman’s actions made me physically ill. I understand Wolitzer was showing how the Interestings were neither as smart, empathetic, or informed as they thought they were; she tried to show just how narrow-minded and selfish they were (how all teens are), and it was done well, but I still did not enjoy reading it. It honestly made my skin crawl.
The Interestings is not one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I did enjoy it. The thoughts it provoked and what I felt while reading it have lingered for almost two weeks. Lately I’ve been questioning what it means to be “successful” and how you measure that and whether my teenage self would be proud of my 23-year-old self, and this book indulged me. And, in a lot of ways, it made me feel better about what I perceive as failures or not living up to my sometimes unrealistic expectations. If anything, Wolitzer’s novel left me with an amazing piece of wisdom: there is a beauty and strength in being okay with just who you are, whether or not it’s “interesting.”