This is the fifth post in the Reading Women Writers series.
I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings weeks ago, yet I found it difficult to write about until now for a couple of reasons. First, it is a very recent novel, and I don’t want to spoil it with an in-depth writing. Second, I had an unexpected reaction to it. It is well-written, the characters are developed, it feels real. These qualities make it an excellent book. Both bildungsroman and social commentary, there is an underlying darkness that at times bleeds to the surface. Being 30 in America today, the novel struck me in a way I did not expect it would when I began reading.
In the summer of 1974, 15-year-old Julie Jacobson was sent to the Spirit-of-the-Woods camp in New York, a place where precocious, artistic teens spent their vacations. Here she joins a group of campers, self-named The Interestings, who for the most part become life-long friends, and is in a sense reborn as “Jules.” The novel follows Jules and the rest of The Interestings into adulthood in the 21st century.
In the novel, as is the case most often in real life, growing up means the loss of possibilities. The idealistic aphorism about one door opening as another closes is an overstatement. At 30, nearly everyone has a fraction of the possibilities for their lives that they did at 15, or even 20. Once you reach your teenage years, each coming year brings more doors to a close. They may be doors that you never would have considered, but they are closed nonetheless.
The other aspect of growing up portrayed in the novel is relegation. For many, becoming an adult means relegating yourself to a life that isn’t close to what you imagined or hoped it would be. This is especially painful for those, who like The Interestings, were celebrated in their youth for being talented or brilliant. It is the burden of having potential and the expectations that are associated with it. One can become a slave to those expectations, and this can make even a comfortable life seem an abject failure.
This feeling, that for all but a few life will never seem as good as it was in your youth, is extremely potent at the milestone age of 30. It is an age where one feels like one foot is still planted in youth and the other in the adult world of unrealized potential and relegation. One is close enough to see the closed doors of past possibilities all too clearly.
Wolitzer also looks at friendship and love, envy, mental illness, sexual assault, AIDS, identity and belonging, and exploitation. Her characters react to the challenges of their lives and the changing world believably, facing things that many readers will have faced in their own lives. To me it seems that The Interestings is one of those novels, like Catcher in the Rye, that elicits a different reaction depending on the age and station of life of the reader.