If we’re lucky, there’s a moment in life when we feel as though we’ve found our people. And Meg Wolitzer’s epic, decade-spanning novel The Interestings first captures this moment through the eyes of Julie “Jules” Jacobson when she meets the most captivating people of her life in a teepee at a Massachusetts summer art camp for New York City kids called Spirit-in-the-Woods in the mid ’70s. Unlike her Upper West Side and boho Greenwich Village-raised peers, Jules hails from a bland town on Long Island and attends the camp on a scholarship. The faces she meets in the teepee remain constant throughout Jules’s life, making up the family she wished she’d grown up with.
There’s Ethan, the Matt Groening-esque aspiring animator from a broken home; Jonah, the beautiful, long-haired son of a folk singer; Cathy, a voluptuous dancer; and the Wolfs—Goodman and Ash (his younger sister)—the attractive products of an impossibly wealthy upbringing. Wolitzer fills her characters with so much life and story that you grow to know them well—with all their charms and faults—in the complicated way you know real people.
Wolitzer’s novel follows “the Interestings” (as the group ironically deems itself one pot-fueled evening upstate) from youth to middle age with life’s unplanned twists. There’s a crime and subsequent disappearance of one of the characters before college, the unexpected success of another; characters shelf creative aspirations for practical paths; romances between the friends flourish and shift, incestuous in the way that college dorms are.
At its heart the book confronts the tricky question of artistic talent, “that slippery thing” as Wolitzer calls it. What counts as real talent and what is just fortunate circumstance? Living in New York, pursuing some kind of creative fulfillment, I couldn’t help but relate to Jules’s adult resentment of her wealthier, more successful friends: “I always thought talent was everything,” Jules rants to her husband one particularly spiteful night, “but maybe it was always money. Or even class. Or if not class exactly, then connections.”
“You’re just realizing this now?,” he responds.
A discussion on Slate’s Audio Book Club podcast had editor Hanna Rosin joking that the title of The Interestings could be “It Gets Worse,” referring to the book’s revelation of all of life’s disappointments. But I didn’t find the book depressing. In the end, Wolitzer points out, isn’t that all we have? “Those moments of strangeness,” Ash Wolf muses to Jules late one night that first summer at Spirit-in-the-Woods. Life is messy and challenging and triumphant and subtle at times. At least it keeps our attention.