Title: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Narrator: Jen Tullock
Audiobook Length: 15 hours, 41 minutes
Origins: Penguin Audio
Bottom Line: Not-so-interesting tale of pretentious teens who never lose that attribute as they grow older
“The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful — true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.”
Thoughts: Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Interestings, explores the decades-long friendship of five friends and their lives both together and separate. Meeting in their teens at a liberal arts camp, the group stay connected through separate colleges and get even closer as they enter into long-term relationships, have families, and start careers. Their individual paths are not what any of them expected or dreamed, but they each find success in different ways. More importantly, they remain available for the highs and lows in each of their lives. This character drama plays out over the span of decades and explores the highs and lows of life.
The fault of The Interestings lies in little things that aggravate and annoy rather than in one big deficiency. For one, the group is too old to have fallen prey to the “everyone is a winner” mindset that is proving so difficult with Millennials in the business world, and yet, that is exactly how they act. Having come of age in the 1970s, this Gen X group would have been subjected to the same tough standards and competition that defines their generation. However, they act like the much younger Millennial generation when they each take their talent as a youth and consider it a given that they will be able to make careers out of it, when the chances of that happening are slim to none – as the story soon proves. The truly interesting part of all of this is that it is not the parents who are encouraging them to “live their dreams”; the parents are actually quite realistic about their chances. Yet, the parents are shown as harsh and judgmental. This interaction between parents and kids, and the whole idea of being able to turn a childhood talent into a successful career is just not generation-appropriate.
Also, there is a disturbing trend in fiction to use a character’s full name throughout a novel rather than just once or twice for character introductions. Even after decades of friendship, it is still Ash Wolf and Jonah Bay rather than just Ash and Jonah. After a book is two-thirds over, is a character’s last name truly that important? It is a slight thing but seriously annoying, and it serves no obvious purpose. This sort of description is happening though more often in novels, but that does not mean that it is a welcome trend.
Speaking of characters, there is something quite despicable about Jules and Ash. Jules’ blind worship of anything related to the Wolf family is disturbing. Ash is too full of herself to be taken seriously, and yet, that is exactly what everyone does. She has a power that is undeserved, unless it comes down to the power associated with a beautiful girl. Her feminist career path is hypocritical after the stance she takes towards her brother’s “transgression”, and for that reason it is difficult to take her seriously. While there is no doubt that she does love Ethan and Jules, there is still a false note in each of those relationships. Forcing her friends to take her brother’s side or else risk their friendship, failing to include her husband on one key element of her family history – they are terribly manipulative and make it difficult to accept her as is.
As for Jules, her hero worship of Ash is understandable at first but quickly devolves into the absurd as the years pass. Their adult friendship also strikes a false note, as Jules goes back to her apartment and mocks everything about Ash’s new life but accepts the free vacations and other perks associated with being friends with millionaires. At more than one point in the novel, a reader asks just why the two are friends, and it is very difficult to discern valid reasons for the relationship lasting as long as it does. Jules would definitely be happier if Ash were not such a prominent feature in her life. Both girls are meant to be tragic but come across as close-minded and bitter instead.
The true heart of the novel, and the stories that derive the most sympathy, are Jonah’s and Ethan’s. Jonah is the odd man out – the friend on the fringe – but by staying on the sidelines, he manages to be the most normal of the group. His childhood tragedy is just that, and it is easy to see why he steps away from his music. He finds a fulfilling job, relationships, and a modicum of success that most people aim to achieve. In other words, he is refreshingly ordinary in spite of his talent and his musical childhood. Ethan is similarly sympathetic and enjoyable. A reader has no doubts about the fact that he loves Jules and has always loved her, and this definitely makes him a tragic figure. His success is genuine, unlike Ash’s, and his initial discomfort at her newfound wealth is endearing…until Ash tells him that he needs to start spending money. One gets the feeling that without Ash’s influence, Ethan would have been the one friend to have changed the least. Again, like Jules and Ash, there is a ring of falseness surrounding his marriage to Ash that is disconcerting. There is nothing wrong with dislikable characters, but there are one too many characters that do not ring true, and in a character-driven novel, this makes it very difficult to enjoy the narrative.
Jen Tullock takes a no-nonsense approach to narrating The Interestings . Her delivery is very matter-of-fact and distant, and it takes a while for a listener to adjust to it. In a way, her delivery makes sense as the narrator truly is a disinterested third party. Still, leaving all of the emotional context to the dialogue of the characters can be very off-putting. As for her characterization, Ms. Tullock does a decent job. Some of her female characters sound a bit like valley girls and her male characterizations have that pseudo-bass note that all women trying to pose as men use. Given the rampant use of each character’s name, The Interestings is one novel where the use of different voices and tonalities is not necessary to keeping track of the dialogue, and her performance might have been stronger had she kept the use of different voices to a minimum. As such, the audio version of The Interestings doesn’t quite work. Ms. Tullock’s performance does nothing to enhance the story, and considering how unemotional her performance is and how little action there is in the story, one would be better served reading it in print versus listening to it.
The Interestings just does not live up to its name. The group of friends have all of youth’s pretentiousness when they meet, which is to be expected, but they sadly never lose this attribute as they age. They come across as snobs, and it is difficult for readers to feel anything other than slight contempt for them. The insertion of political issues into the narrative is distracting and does nothing to enhance the story. While the study of talent versus success is intriguing, there is a considered lack of realism in this that mars this particular plot element. Similarly, there is nothing to promote a strong reader-character connection, and the story tends to plod along as it focuses on the minutiae of the group’s everyday lives. The Interestings are just not that interesting.