The Interestings

  • Meg Wolitzer
  • Riverhead Books
  • 468 pp
  • Reviewed by K.H. Macomber
  • May 29, 2013

For an outsider among the privileged class, a summer camp experience prompts lingering questions of what it means to live a good life.

File under ’Twas Ever Thus: for as long as there have been summer camps — particularly quirky, pot-laced, nurture-your-creative-genius camps — kids with artistic whims have been exposed to new worlds and, once exposed, have raised their expectations a notch or two. For some, that exposure becomes a lifelong game-changer, and not always in beneficial ways. 

In her new novel, The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer drops us into Teepee No. 3 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a counterculture arts camp for talented high school kids. It’s the summer of 1974, a time defined by both the aging Age of Aquarius and the unraveling Nixon years. And there, through the eyes of camper Julie Jacobson, we are introduced to a world of heightened possibilities. 

It all begins when Julie is invited to join a group of fellow campers who are clever and sophisticated, or at least they seem so to the girl who is not a product of Manhattan private wealth. Nor is she an animator savant, or a dedicated dancer, or the musically talented offspring of a world-famous folk singer. And yet, despite her lack of obvious talents or pedigree, Julie gets to join this remarkable circle. She begins her adventure by not bringing attention to herself, lest the cool kids realize their admissions mistake. 

Once inside the tent, Julie partakes in their witty banter and Watergate-era cynicism, and the group decrees her good at both. Acerbic wit becomes Julie’s ticket to membership within the tribe, and once she’s been dubbed “Jules” by the group’s queen bee, the suburban misfit sheds all remnants of her former self and never looks back. Well, not for a few years, at least.

What magic do these self-described “Interestings” possess that so infatuates Julie-now-Jules? In addition to being worldly and wise, they all seem to possess “greatness-in-waiting.” They seem to know where they’re headed, and have the passion and the wherewithal to get there, wherever “there” may be. Or maybe it’s just that they have access to the keys that open the necessary doors to let their talents flourish — wherewithal-by-proxy, earned or not. Could it possibly be that the “Interestings” are not all so terribly talented, not all worthy of one’s undying loyalty, and, in some cases, dangerously blind to the foibles of their choices and actions? How’s a smitten 15-year-old to know?  

It takes Jules years to distill these wonderments into something approaching a greater truth. Through this seemingly lifelong learning process, she spends her days and decades searching for a way to find an inner peace, and not give in to disappointment born of dead-end casting calls and useless acting classes. Her grown-up life as a therapist, worthy though it may be, seems like a retreat from the greatness she expected — the success that seemed a birthright to those denizens of Teepee No. 3.  

While the plot of The Interestings intertwines the multiple biographies of the group that came together in the era of All The President’s Men, it’s the common pursuit of a life well lived that knits the narratives together. Is it the phenomenal commercial standout who comes closest to achieving that feat, despite his despondent home life? Or is it the sensitive feminist whose artistic efforts are strictly nonprofit? Is true achievement realized by the person who changes course entirely, who lowers the expectations a tad, or who devotes herself to the care of her gifted and challenging children? As adults, “The Interestings” ask themselves which life any one of them might want to trade for their own. 

In the novel’s background run culture-shifting events that the characters would all have read about in the Sunday New York Times. From the dawn of the AIDS epidemic to Central Park’s preppy murder, from the trials of parenting children on the autistic spectrum to the advent of TED talks, Wolitzer has peppered the novel with cultural benchmarks. Unfortunately, these markers sometimes feel like a bit of shorthand, to explain how the characters got where they are, as if the times explain their lot. The timeline references also make it possible to give short shrift to some of the less fully developed characters as the years flash by. 

After decades of do-si-do-ing in and out of one another’s lives — and in Jules’s case, even after returning to Spirit-in-the-Woods to gain a midlife perspective on that sacred place — it’s the outsiders, the un-interestings, who bring the greatest clarity to this complex set of personal experiences. Jules’s outsider husband notes, without a smidgen of cynicism or irony, that a small life can be a good life if you let it be, if you don’t constantly compare your situation to your long-ago summer teepee mates. The author herself makes the same point in a Mary Robinson quote as a preface to her story:  “to own only a little talent … was an awful, plaguing thing … being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.” 

To be “gifted,” in the multiple meanings of that word, is a double-edged sword. To have a specific talent is only a start, as Wolitzer reveals to us through her character’s travails. Luck helps. Money and access are instrumental. Hard work is required. And even if all the cards fall in the right place for any of us, none of it guarantees fame, success or, most poignantly, true fulfillment. These are the life lessons that The Interestings ambitiously and compellingly delivers. 

K.H. Macomber lives in Cambridge Mass.

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