What kind of book deserves a five-star rating? What it comes down to for me is how great I feel while I’m reading it, how deeply I relate to the characters, to the ideas they express and to the way these characters serve as symbols that represent multiple layers of themes.
Meg Wolitzer does all the things I love in The Interestings, a story that spans forty years and follows the lives of six talented teenagers who meet in 1974 at a summer camp for the arts. In the book, Wolitzer poses this central question: What is to be done with talent? And this story is how each of her characters struggles to balance talent with relationships, careers, family and happiness.
Wolitzer touches on many themes, particularly the complicated relationship between talent, success, money and happiness. At Spirit-in-the-Woods camp, Jules Jacobson is a newcomer to this precocious group. She soon discovers the niche of comedic acting. Ash Wolf is beautiful, a more serious actress. Her brother, Goodman, is big, handsome and charismatic, an aspiring architect, but he’s lazy. Cathy Kiplinger is a talented dancer. Jonah Bay is a gifted musician, the son of a famous folksinger. And at the core of these friends is Ethan Figman, awkward, heavy and unattractive. He’s a brilliant cartoonist who has a keen sense of what others are feeling and continues in that role throughout his life.
As the friends enter the adult world in New York, they start to understand that talent can only get them so far, that money and connections can be equally important. Some make it, some change course, some struggle desperately. Ethan’s Figland cartoon propels him to unimagined levels of success and the other characters watch with jaw-dropped amazement. But this isn’t just a story about six kids and their arty careers. It’s also a story about family, marriage, envy, depression, friendship and big secrets that threaten the ruin of everything they’ve built. It’s about work and the big machine of business. It’s about New York and “its unyielding surfaces.”
I’ll leave out the plot developments so you can enjoy The Interestings as much as I have. Instead, I’ll tell you why, in addition to what’s above, this is such a great read:
- It’s extremely well-organized, with great early details that come into play much later.
- It’s not a historical novel, but there are just enough historical references to anchor you to a certain period of time.
- The social and political commentary is present, but not overbearing. I like knowing what the author thinks.
- Many of the characters reach dramatic life-changing epiphanies and that really moved me.
- There is a great payback scene that exceeded my expectations!
- I love Ethan Figman, the way he thinks, feels and cares about his friends.
- I also love the comparison between the marriages, how the roles change as situations shift.
Here are my favorite quotes from The Interestings:
This is Ethan talking to Jonah about the meaning of work and life:
Don’t be guided by some rigid philosophy. Make things. Play your guitar. Build robots. This is all we’ve really got, isn’t it? What else is there but basically building things until the day we die?
Here is a description of Ethan when he reaches his own epiphany:
Ethan had imagined his life was nearly perfect except for the flawed son; but the flaw was in the father.
This describes Jules as she thinks about how Ethan is her soulmate:
But she knew, you didn’t have to marry your soulmate, and you didn’t even have to marry an Interesting. You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker…you could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting…the definition could change; it had changed, for her.
And finally (warning – mild spoiler!), Jules and Dennis and how he comes back strong:
He willed the marriage back, and pulled his wife toward him. Dennis was present, still present, and this, she thought as she stayed landed against him, was no small talent.
This is my kind of book and I was so glad to finally read it. Have you already read The Interestings? Do you agree with me? I’ve read a lot of reviews and not all of them are positive. I’d love to hear what you think!
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