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Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

By posted at 12:00 pm on May 9, 2013 17

coverMy son will be two in June, and his favorite books include The Paperbag Princess, Eloise, and any story starring that lovable mouse Maisy. This is no accident; since our son was born, my husband and I have made sure he’s exposed to books about boys and girls. We also always recite the author’s name along with the title so that he understands that books are made by humans, male and female, for humans, male and female. We are feminists raising a boy who will become a man, and (we hope) a feminist and (we pray) a reader. If he reads diversely, he will not only have access to a wider and more complex world, but he’ll also read a shitload of great books. Plus, if he reads a lot of lady writers, he will — if he wants it — get so much more pussy. Let’s face it: nothing’s hotter than a man with an Emily Books subscription.

I myself try to read books by men and women in equal numbers. Yes, it’s true, I keep track of stuff like this; how else to hold myself and my reading proclivities accountable? I admit, though, had Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Interestings been written by a dude, I might have waited for it to come out in paperback. It’s just so…long. Like other women readers I know, I’m a little sick of the big literary book written by the big literary man. And maybe I’m resentful. My editor wanted to me cut about 20,000 words for my forthcoming novel California, which I did because the criticism was spot-on, the book was longer than it needed to be; still, I couldn’t help but wonder (aloud and all the time) if Eugenides, Franzen, and Harbach had also been edited for length. Thankfully, Meg Wolitzer is a woman, and after reading her famous and astute New York Times essay, “The Second Shelf,” about the ways books by women are marketed and treated by readers, I was happy to support her ambitious and, yes, long book. Sing it, sister!

coverIn some ways, The Interestings reminds me of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s captivating (and big) novel A Fortunate Age, also about a group of friends in New York over a period of many years. The Interestings, though, covers even more time, introducing us to its characters when they’re teenagers at an arts summer camp in the 1970s and following them into their 50s. Though told in a sweeping and shifting third-person point of view, the novel is anchored by Jules Jacobson, one of six friends who ironically (and not-so-ironically) call themselves The Interestings that first year together at summer camp, when they’re young and brilliant and the world is theirs for the taking; the book follows them through marriage, parenthood, and (for one) even death. It’s a book about how talent develops, or withers, as people grow up. It’s also about intimacy and loyalty — in families, between friends, between spouses — and about money, jealousy, and comparing yourself to others as well as to a past version of yourself. Like many big books, it’s about the cruelty and solace of time’s passage.

I’d say Wolitzer has written “a novel of ideas” if said novel weren’t so engaging. (In my household, the phrase, “a novel of ideas,” is followed by an eye-roll. Such books are made for humorless people who don’t like television, candy, and/or dancing.) I read the book in four days, hushing anyone who tried to speak to me as I finished a paragraph or chapter, and laughing aloud at various cafes (yeah, I became that person). The pure enjoyment of reading The Interestings belies its skill and craft. The narrative perspective, authorial yet also intimate, is so nimble. Wolitzer is able to pull off that rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick of offering wise and assured narration, and then narrowing into a particular consciousness, as she does here:

Julie Jacobson, at the start of that first night, had not yet transformed into the far better sounding Jules Jacobson, a change that would deftly happen a little while later. As Julie, she’d always felt all wrong; she was gangling, and her skin went pink and patchy at the least provocation: if she got embarrassed, if she ate hot soup, if she stepped into the sun for half a minute.

The book also occasionally fast-forwards in time, and does it so deftly that I didn’t even notice it was happening until I was already inside of a new moment. Here is one example, regarding the brilliant cartoonist Ethan Figman:

Once, as Ethan bent the flexible straw, he became aware of the tiny little creak it made upon bending, and he filed away the idea, straw sound, for some future endeavor. “Straw sound! Straw sound!” the character Wally Figman demanded of his mother, who’d given him a glass of chocolate milk a few months later in a flashback to early childhood in one of the short Figland films. The noisy, brash cartoon soundtrack came to a halt while Wally’s mother bent the straw for her son, and the straw made that unmistakeable and somehow pleasurable squeaking creak.

Once Figland hit primetime, stoners watching the show would soon say to one another, “Straw sound, straw sound!” And someone might go into a kitchen, or even run out to a store, and bring back a box of Circus Flexi-Straws and bend straw after straw to hear that specific, inimitable sound, finding it unaccountably hilarious.

covercoverThe novel’s narrative style complements its multi-character cast, and, like other recent books of this kind (Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins come to mind), it offers a multifaceted yet deeply imagined rendering of experience.

But what, exactly, makes it so readable? The Interestings, after all, relies on large swaths of exposition and summary to cover so much time, and if a writer isn’t careful, shifting characters can often slow down a story. Furthermore, the book reveals the outcome of certain characters’ lives early on; the novel isn’t initially told chronologically, and a lot is “given away” in the first 30 pages. How come I kept reading then? Wolitzer’s unpredictable structure and her modes of narration reminded me, as a writer and teacher of writing, that telling can and does create narrative propulsion, provided that the telling is specific and thoughtful, sensual and fluid. Zipping through juicy, character-deepening summary is one of reading’s big pleasures, and Wolitzer gets that. What she does choose to withhold from the reader, to be revealed in-scene, is significant. She dramatizes the conflict that corrodes this group of friends, and that makes all the difference.

(Also, Wolitzer writes terrific sex scenes, and that will always keep my interest. The phrase “stingy little anus” is magnificent, don’t you think?)

The book’s second half isn’t as strong as the first, maybe because Wolitzer has such a gift for exposition. As the novel hurtled toward September 11, 2001, I felt a familiarity to the events, and an awful sense that these sections were obligatory though not central to the story’s arc.  Jules, Ethan, and the rest of the group continued to live their lives, one day unspooling into the next; time’s passage felt believable and moving, and yet not as electric as the first half of the book. When, fairly late in the novel, Jules and her husband return to the arts camp, to run it themselves, I was less interested in this plot-line, for whatever reason. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of the book didn’t disappear. I remained captivated. As I read its final lines, declarative and profound and true, I felt mournful. The book — this book! — was over. I closed the novel and wondered if I could write a book this big, this ballsy. I imagined Ms. Wolitzer behind an imposing mahogany desk, quill in hand. “Why not?” she said to me, and smiled. Yes, why not?

Maybe one day, when my son is an adult, I’ll force him to be in an intermittent book club with me. When it’s my turn to pick something, I’ll choose The Interestings.

Unless, of course, he’s already read it.





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17 Responses to “Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings”

  1. Nathan
    at 12:34 pm on May 9, 2013

    Great review. Here’s to hoping that your son finds his way out of the volume of pussy in his future to spend time reading with you. I’m sure he won’t regret spending that time with you, but the ladies will.

  2. Ryan Ries
    at 12:53 pm on May 9, 2013

    Nice review. I’ve got to say, though, one of my biggest criticism pet peeves is the default labeling of any book over 450 pages as “ambitious”. Time and again it seems to me that critics mistake length for ambition (the most egregious example of this in recent memory being Freedom). Maybe our collective attention span has so eroded that the notion of anything beyond a two-minute youtube clip is almost impossible to fathom…anyhow, if you ask me, it would be quite ambitious if the author had decided to follow 6 friends across 40 years and do it in 250 pages, for example. Or had used multiple POVs. It’s much easier to use more pages and a single POV, in my humble opinion.

    Then again I haven’t read this yet, so there’s that.

    I’m curious – what, to you, exactly made it “ambitious” and “ballsy”?

  3. Edan Lepucki
    at 1:00 pm on May 9, 2013

    Nathan, LOLZ…!

    Ryan, I agree, too often length is regarded as ambitious. I also love novels that compress time in the way you describe, a la STONER. Perhaps I wasn’t being clear–Wolitzer’s novel *does* use multiple points of view, and it’s the way she deftly handles time: scene, exposition, flash forwards, that is quite ambitious and skillful to me. She also allows New York at its various cultural moments to be a character, without letting that get in the way of her human players. There is lot to admire here, beyond page length.

  4. Jacob
    at 2:52 pm on May 9, 2013

    Because the best thing to do on the internet is to give other people child-rearing advice, I wonder: might you be going about it all wrong? Rather: forbid your son from reading books by women, hide the Alcott, the Woolf, the Austen, and the Didion. Tell him that books by women are unsuitable, improper, not the kind of books that the good kinds of people read. Normal adolescent revolt should take it from there. I guess the downside would be that he’d look back at you both as horribly sexist monsters, but it’s a means to an end.

    Enjoyed the review.

  5. Amarie Fox
    at 7:21 pm on May 9, 2013

    I have been sort of putting off buying this novel, but I don’t really know why. I saw it in my local bookstore, picked it up, and at the last minute put it back down. I can’t say length was a factor. I mean, I plowed through Eliot’s Middle March, after all.

    However, after this fantastic and wonderfully written review, I think I have a little trip to make!

    Edan, what I really wanted to say was that the very thing that makes this piece special is the other places it manages to explore – personal and otherwise:

    “[…] the book was longer than it needed to be; still, I couldn’t help but wonder (aloud and all the time) if Eugenides, Franzen, and Harbach had also been edited for length. ”

    This is something I have wondered, as well. Thank you for being brave enough to mention it.

    Again, great review. I’ll definitely be looking out for your novel, California. When do you think it will be released?

  6. Mike
    at 8:49 pm on May 9, 2013

    The gender of the author shouldn’t matter, especially after the death of the author came about. Works should be judged by aesthetic principles alone.

  7. Ryan Ries
    at 12:09 pm on May 10, 2013

    Edan,

    Thanks for the response. I am impressed that you managed to extract Stoner from my comment because that is my go-to example for how I define “ambitious” (along with Gatsby).

    Look forward to checking the Wolitzer out.

  8. Edan Lepucki
    at 4:25 pm on May 10, 2013

    Jacob, I am trying that philosophy when it comes to eating: my son only has access to Skittles and Coca-Cola, so that someday he only wants to eat quinoa and kale!

    Thanks, Amarie. My book comes out next spring, though the exact date hasn’t been decided on just yet…hopefully it will soon…! I will say that I enjoy books by Franzen, etc., long or not!

    Mike, perhaps the gender shouldn’t matter, but it does, again and again. Just take a bunch of female novelists out for pizza and you’ll hear war stories about book covers, sexist comments about their author photos, condescending reviews (or no reviews at all), etc. etc.

    Ryan, Stoner rocks!

  9. Mark Olague
    at 11:10 am on May 14, 2013

    Why is a novel of ideas already assumed to not be engaging? What other novels are there? If there are others, I sure don’t read ‘em. Other than that, I’ll be checking out The Interestings. Nice review.

    Oh, I probably do think deliberately directing your kid to women writers sounds noble and well-intentioned but might guarantee, through generational logic, that he’ll rebel and choose the opposite: be a huge Bukowski, Updike, and Mailer fan.

    Or not.

  10. Edan Lepucki
    at 12:17 pm on May 14, 2013

    Mark, yes, all good novels are, in a sense, novels of ideas. It’s the moniker that I hate, as it usually means the book doesn’t have much in the way of plot and characters. And I really, really like plot and characters. Books that seem to begin with an idea/theme, rather than let that idea/theme emerge from plot and character, seem empty, intellectual exercises to me. More like algebra equations than novels.

    I don’t mean to be noble in directing my child to female writers/characters. It’s more that I think he’ll enjoy such books. I am fine with him being a huge fan of any of the authors you list–taste is taste, and I will love that he loves these writers. (Some of my favorite writers are men! Ha.) It’s just that it seems to me that, from a very young age, boys are taught not to be interested in the stories of girls, and that seems really sad. Many of these stories are entertaining and meaningful. My son loves Paperbag Princess and Olivia. He also loves Curious George and any book with a train in it. He’s a wide and voracious reader, and I hope he stays that way.

  11. M Quaem
    at 2:16 am on May 22, 2013

    Interesting review, but I respectfully suggest that much of your praise and your claim to be a feminist are contradicted by your wondering if you “could write a book this big, this ballsy.”

  12. Edan Lepucki
    at 11:03 am on May 22, 2013

    M Quaem,
    Thanks for the feedback. But are you suggesting that one can’t playfully use the word “ballsy” to refer to a woman or a woman’s work–or that such word use is anti-feminist? Or are you suggesting that feminists can’t experience self-doubt? I guess I don’t understand your argument…

  13. Meg Wolitzer visits in the rain | Broken Penguins
    at 9:04 am on May 26, 2013

    […] Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings […]

  14. M Quaem
    at 4:32 am on May 30, 2013

    Edan Lepucki,
    I was referring to the etymology of the word. Ballsy, derived from balls (testis), is slang for “acting manly or macho,” the implication being that toughness or courage or nerve is a characteristic of or inherent in only those having testicles (although the term and its variations are often used ironically, or sarcastically: “She got balls, man”; “ Hey, that’s one more ballsy babe”). Best wishes

  15. Edan Lepucki
    at 12:45 pm on June 3, 2013

    Thanks for the clarification, M Quaem.
    I was aware of the etymology of the word, and yeah, I was using it knowingly, and also figuratively. I’m taking back the word so that anyone, regardless of gender, can have balls, cajones, courage, bravery, and so on. Not just men.

  16. M Quaem
    at 9:43 pm on June 9, 2013

    OK. But I respectfully disagree with your logic. I read/hear “ballsy” as a vulgar sophomoric macho term regardless of what gender is proclaiming it.

    http://www.jmu.edu/socanth/sociology/wm_library/Ezzell.Reclaiming_Critical_Analysis.pdf (on “reclaiming” words)

    http://www.debate.org/forums/society/topic/29765/1/ (on “ballsy” as sexist)

  17. John
    at 6:22 pm on January 7, 2014

    My goodness, M Quaem, lighten up. You are precisely the reason that most people consider other people who are “well-read” to be uptight, elitist and downright obnoxious. You give the rest of us a bad name.

    Sing it sister Edan. Ballsy she is (Ms. Wolitzer).

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