I've been walking around in a bookish haze since Thursday, when I started Wolitzer's The Interestings. I had a hard time putting this down. It's smart, perceptive, and engaging. Coming in at about 550 pages, it is also one of my lengthier reads this year.
I was generally underwhelmed by Wolitzer's newest novel, The Female Persuasion. I recently came across a review for one of her older books and wanted to give Wolitzer's stuff another try. I should preface this review with the fact that I unabashedly love books like this: multi-generational, family epics with lots of drama. Critics compare The Interestings, published in 2013, with Franzen's Freedom and Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. I'm in the minority with my continued fascination re: Franzen novels (I get it--he can be a pompous asshole), but I tend to love books that fall in the broad realm of Franzen-esque fiction. I love Eugenides' work almost as much. So perhaps it's not that surprising that I give Wolitzer five stars on this one.
The Interestings opens in the summer of 1974 at a camp for "gifted" kids in New England. It is here that we meet our main characters in the variously awkward blooms of adolescence: Ash (thoughtful and serious, also beautiful), Ethan (homely and brilliant, vaguely lovesick), Jonah (timid and deeply scarred), and Jules (awkward and self-conscious, with a witty streak). In the next 500 pages, Wolitzer follows this group of friends for 40 years (through the excitement of college and first love, the angst of difficult breakups, the chaos of parenting, and the loneliness that tends to stick with us, even in healthy marriages).
At the core of this book is the question of what it means to lead an "interesting" life. Why do we feel the need to label our children as talented, gifted, and special? Is it not enough to raise children to be self-sufficient and joyful? Why do we often praise children for talent, creativity, beauty, and artistry, when they ultimately must grow to be level headed, self-reliant adults?
Upon publication, The Interestings received overwhelmingly positive feedback from critics (The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, and The Boston Globe all gave glowing reviews-- just to name a few). It was not as big of a hit among Goodreads reviewers: The Interestings now averages 3.55 / 5 stars, and has received a fair number of 1 and 2 star ratings. There are some common criticisms. People describe the book as too "self-conscious and ironic," with unnecessarily "lofty" language (this is a strange critique to me because the core of the book is in the irony of these characters thinking that they're "interesting" when they're actually not). Another common critique is that The Interestings is unapologetic in its focus on lives of the white and privileged. I get that. I hear you. It's entirely fair to say that this book is narrow in scope and topic. This book does not do everything, but very few books do. The Interestings is beautifully done. Bravo, Wolitzer. I'll take you over Franzen any day.