the-interestings2How Interesting Are You?

This month, Snotty Literati takes on Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings about a bunch of people who meet at an arts summer camp as high school kids. The book is epic, following their lives into adulthood and middle age. Before we get into it, take note that there’s a lot of talk surrounding Wolitzer as a female writer. Isn’t this book that same kind of sprawling, complicated, literary tome as those written by Jonathan Franzen (we haven’t read Freedom!)? Is it taken as seriously? Wolitzer also sometimes gets inadvertently tangled up in chick lit talk. She’s written some good stuff on the topic. We’ve kinda looked at this issue, before—so we’ll move on (but not without a shout out to Wolitzer: You Go, Girl!)

Jennifer: Well, I liked this book a lot. It hasn’t stuck with me, sadly, as this totally brilliant book I read this year—though I thoroughly enjoyed it. First, I’m so completely obsessed with aging (especially my own) that I loved how Wolitzer looked at the aging of her characters, who met at 15 when they were—according to their own assessment—interesting. Second, I love how this book is really a critique on how we romanticize ourselves, our own existences, our own adolescences.

Lara:  I really enjoyed it, too. Wolitzer did a fantastic job capturing a snapshot—maybe a panoramic shot—of six people from ages 15 – 50ish, and it felt real. There wasn’t anything forced about it.

Jennifer: No, it’s not forced. What she does so well is bring to life the evolution and maybe decline of our own sense of self-importance? When Ethan, the animation genius, is still a teenager at camp, he says,

“I read somewhere that most of the really intense feelings you’ll ever feel take place right around our age. And everything that comes afterward is going to feel more and more diluted and disappointing.”

Is this true? Lara, is this true?

Later, he says to Jules, his life-long unrequited love,

“Everyone basically has one aria to sing over their entire life . . .”

For me, this was the crux of the novel. I might say I loved the novel for this. Some people live in possession of their one aria . . .

Lara: I think it is true for a lot of people, yes. But I actually think the story talks about the ebb and flow of life. Greatness followed by tragedy or drudgery and then greatness again. Never-before-considered and attending-on-a-scholarship Julie Jacobson gets an invite into the eclectically cool group consisting of graphic artist Ethan, dancer Cathy, musician Jonah, and wealthy siblings Goodman and Ash (no, that’s not a law firm, but a brother and sister, respectively). With that invitation, Julie becomes Jules and her life is transformed. I think we all have moments like that—seminal moments—but I actually feel like my best time is now. Adolescence was my awkward period. Sure, I had some defining moments, but it isn’t a time I cling to the way I think Jules does.

Jennifer: I think—if I were to be completely honest, and I’m going to be completely honest—a certain element or kind of person gets hoodwinked, if you will, into thinking he or she is somehow unique in perception or artistry or intensity of feeling. Giving up this notion of their own special aria is a big deal. Maybe, Lara, you didn’t have such a superiority complex. You know what? I did. So did a lot of my friends. We were older than these kids, though—maybe eighteen, twenty? This is the group into which Jules is drafted. I had my own elitist set. We believed in our own insight. This accounts for how we matured. As we became more and more disappointed in life, we offered a dry wit, an ironic gaze. Lara, you should hear me when I’m dishing the dry wit and irony. When the superiority complex wears thin, the dry wit prevails. Without our arias, we offer irony.

In this book, Jules—the narrative’s focal point—is ultimately “saved” by her husband, an ordinary guy. She’s saved from the disappointments surrounding self-absorption.

Lara: I will say this group of six is definitely self-absorbed, as most of us are at that age—at any age, really. But I think you can be self-absorbed without having an elitist component. And I don’t know that the group that formed at Spirit of the Woods arts camp was all that elitist. Sure, some of them had wealth, and some immense talent—Ethan would actually evolve to be a like a Matt Groening with his own show, Figland. And Cathy with her dancing skills: too bad her boobs were too big to make dance her profession. I don’t know that they thought they were above others. Well, Goodman did. He was condescending and horrible (and really well-written) and thankfully away for most of the book.

Jennifer: Well, obviously, you were not elitist—so you can be thankful for that. In my thinking, elitism is a very subtle thing. It has less to do with thinking oneself better than others and more to do with a heightened sense of self. Does this make sense? Probably not. I think Dennis, the ordinary guy husband, calls Jules on it when he says,

“I haven’t had people telling me how great I am. And the truth of it is that none of you were all that great. Your friends: Mr. loser gold tooth, and his lying sister with her precious plays that I have never understood, and Ethan the magnificent, all of whom you’ve always worshipped beyond anything or anyone else on earth. And the thing is: They’re not that interesting . . .  And if you’d gone to another [camp], you would’ve met an entirely different group of people and become friends with them. . . Yeah, you were lucky you got to come here when you did. But what was most exciting about it when you were here was the fact that you were young.”

What he ultimately says is that no one is interesting, and everyone is interesting.

Lara: Oh, how I loved Dennis! He was my favorite character. So down to earth and patient and in love with Jules and their life—no matter how small, confined or uninteresting it might have been. Dennis could be my boyfriend, you know. We need Dennis to come to life and be my boyfriend. But wait… isn’t that what he’s raging against? That we shouldn’t envy others? I think it’s Dennis who says jealousy is wanting what another has and envy is not only wanting what another has but also wishing that other person didn’t have it. Jules struggles with envy of Ash and Ethan throughout their lives and can’t just appreciate what she has.

Jennifer: Yes, Dennis is the hero of the story for many reasons—and this is a really wonderful aspect of this novel. Wolitzer writes about the life of a marriage, too. Not only is this a novel about kids who romanticize their own existences, it’s also a novel about a lengthy marriage. For a chunk of their life together, Dennis suffers from a debilitating depression (very well depicted). Their identities change in this novel, but they stick together, and I found this refreshingly nice.

Lara: I love that they ride out the storms together. Their relationship was very honest and without secrets, unlike the other five.

Jennifer: Wolitzer writes,

“In a marriage, they both knew, sometimes there was a period in which one partner faltered, and the other partner held everything together.”

Lara: Their relationship was just real. Do you remember when Jules and Dennis went back to his apartment the first time they had sex? They had been making out and were already undressed when Jules learned he had a loft bed. There was no way she would be the first to climb the ladder, with every nook and cranny of her body on display for Dennis. Um, no woman would want that. She just graciously let him go first. And in doing so, the reader gets Jule’s view of Dennis’ hairy backside, dangling scrotum and all. Wolitzer is able to write this in an endearing way, despite the awkwardness. From this point in the book, I wanted them to work out. I was always rooting for them.

Jennifer: Yeah, I’m not a fan of the dangling scrotum—though of course it sticks out in my mind and I simply can’t forget it. I know, I know. I get very prudish about this stuff. I could do without this. All I can see right now are dangling scrotum. Please make it stop. Make. It. Stop.

Here’s something else we might mention: I love a good New York-centric novel, and this is one. I know there are naysayers who get all upset about the self-importance (there’s that word again!) of New York—but, hey, New York just rocks. Of Manhattan, Wolitzer writes,

“The city—this place that they had managed rather than conquered . . . ”

I wonder if there’s something about this managing versus conquering thing present in their lives.

Lara:  Sure, there is. For Jules and Dennis, it’s managing life at a different socio-economic level. It’s managing his depression and her envy. It’s Ethan managing a life of fame and a child he doesn’t understand. It’s Jonah (who we haven’t really talked about) managing a relationship he can’t connect with. It’s Cathy managing her life away from the other five because of an allegation during one of those sacred summers. And it’s Ash managing a secret for over 30 years. I think they and we all manage a portion of our lives. Don’t you?

Jennifer: Yeah. I think they envisioned themselves as conquerors. Why is this book called The Interestings, Lara? Manny, the Spirit-in-the-Woods man, says when he’s urged to go contemporary,

“You’re telling me that because of the Internet, and the availability of every experience, every whim, every tool, suddenly everyone’s an artist? But here’s the thing: If everyone’s an artist, then no one is.”

If everyone is interesting, then no one is? Is that what this book is saying? Or is Dennis the key to understanding the novel? We are all ordinary?

Oh no. Another thing people like to talk about is the “novel of ideas.” Does this book make the cut?

Lara: The “novel of ideas”? Hell, if I know.

How’s this? I do think everyone is interesting, but we don’t need to be so concerned with it to the point of envy or so disengaged that we live in a bubble, completely unaware of others and utterly self-absorbed. Dennis is the straight man in this story with everyone else being a little more neurotic or problematic. Interesting, since he essentially has a stroke and suffers major depression through the bulk of their relationship. He’s actually the most stable one.

Jennifer: I think it’s become obvious to our readers that you’re the one who’s more stable, less elitist, and not as prone to the romanticism of self. Kudos to you. I’m sure my mother loves you.

My final word on this novel: it isn’t entirely consistent in its musings, though it touches upon a very important topic. While not everyone possesses this self-absorption, some do—and those who do are very lucky if they run into a Dennis who tempers narcissism. Without this tempering, disappointment awaits.

Lara: I think your mom does love me. How could she not? Oh, wait. I am starting to sound a little you-know-what.

My final word on this novel: I recommend it. Great characters and character development, fantastic dialogue and you will get to meet my new boyfriend, Dennis.

Coming Soon!

December: Our Best of 2013
January: James McBride’s National Book Award Winner: The Good Lord Bird


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