You know them, or maybe you're one of them: the type of person for whom the most important thing in the world is to be interesting.
Meg Wolitzer's new novel, The Interestings, is devoted to investigating the species, following a clique of New Yorkers who meet as teens at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a summer camp for the arts, in 1974. As they hang out in camp teepees, drinking vodka and Tang and smoking joints, they dream of bright futures as actors, musicians and artists.
Most of them won't get there. They'll have to satisfy themselves with more everyday pursuits of work and family. One will veer completely off the expected path. We readers get to follow them on a spiraling journey that goes back and forth in time, taking the teens into late middle age and back again, watching the bonds and tensions of their lifelong friendships tighten.
It's a smart conceit, giving novelistic scope and scale to both the ambitious and the ordinary. The fulcrum of the group is Julie Jacobson, who arrives at camp from Long Island, "unknown and frizzy-headed and plain," sent off to get over the sudden death of her father from cancer. She is re-christened Jules by her hip new friends, and she leaves with aspirations to become a comic actor.
The rest of the circle are children of Manhattan. At the center are lovely and sensitive Ash Wolf, a would-be playwright, and her lackadaisical but equally beautiful brother, Goodman, who aspires to be an architect or, well, something interesting. There's Cathy Kiplinger, who wants to dance but doesn't have a dancer's body. Jonah Bay is the reserved son of a famous folk singer with a talent for music, a talent he's deeply ambivalent about.
Finally, there's Ethan Figman, the chubby nerd who spends summers drawing in the camp's "Animation Shed." He tries to get Jules to be his girlfriend, but Ethan isn't who she had in mind. He's not Goodman.
It's too bad, because Ethan is the one destined for artistic success. Years after camp, he creates the blockbuster TV show Figland (which sounds a lot like The Simpsons) and marries the ephemeral Ash. Their newfound wealth allows Ash to become a successful director of feminist stage plays. In their spare time, they put on the Mastery Seminars, an ideas festival for moneyed creative types.
Their out-of-proportion success gives Jules "manageable" envy every year as their holiday letter arrives. Jules has settled into a career as a therapist and marriage to a decent man named Dennis. She's given up her ambitions as an actor, her dreams squashed by the acting coach who asks the cruel but salient question: "Have you ever asked yourself whether the world actually needs to see you act?"
Meanwhile, Goodman gets in trouble and has to disappear; Cathy likewise drops away from the group. Jonah comes out of the closet, and in one of the book's most heartbreaking set pieces, reveals he was exploited at a young age by one of his mother's folksinging friends.
Reading The Interestings, I couldn't help but compare it admirably with another novel that tracked the dramas of upper-middle-class American life from youth to middle age — Jonathan Franzen's celebrated Freedom. That novel achieved critical admiration and bestseller status, and deservedly so, but on the whole, I preferred Wolitzer's novel.
Franzen's novels are set in the Midwest, while Wolitzer's characters are utterly of New York and relentlessly secular. (Virtually the only time religion makes an appearance is when Jonah Bay needs to be rescued from the Moonies.) Even so, her characters are less stereotypical than Franzen's. She's not as snarky, and her plot twists are more believable.
So if Wolitzer holds her own with Franzen, why isn't she better known? This is her tenth novel, so it's not as if she's new to the literary scene. It's enough to make one wonder — yet again — about the double standards for highbrow fiction that apply to male and female authors. (Wolitzer wondered about this herself last year in an essay for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.)
My main complaint with The Interestings is the same as my complaint with Freedom: The journey is great, but when I get to the end, I find it all just a bit ... light. It's so much of this moment, of 21st century consumer culture, that it seems to pointedly lack broader significance. Wolitzer's characters are interesting, but what else are they? As Wolitzer amply demonstrates, if your only ambition in life is to be interesting, it's also the most anyone will be able to say about you when you die.
Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.