My 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!
In 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.
The 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.