American author Meg Wolitzer already has rather a few titles to her name, but it is 2013’s The Interestings which has brought her the most acclaim – in the United Kingdom, at least. Her newest novel has been highly praised by many critics – the New York Times Book Review calls it ‘remarkable’, author Jeffrey Eugenides compares it to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and the San Francisco Chronicle writes that it is ‘engrossing’.
The premise of the novel is thus: on a summer night in 1974, whilst at a summer camp called ‘Spirit-in-the-Woods’, six teenagers ‘play at being cool’, and end up naming themselves ‘The Interestings’ with ‘tentative irony’. We meet all of these six at the point at which they are spending their first evening together, and are then reacquainted with them decades afterwards.
The characters, whilst alike in some ways – this likeness mostly manifests itself within their speech patterns, causing them to blend a little at times – do have differences which set them apart from one another. Julie Jacobsen, the newcomer to the camp, has experienced recent grief, with her father passing away from pancreatic cancer. Ethan Figman is an animator, ‘filling the pages of the little spiral notebooks that always bulged from his back pocket’. Jonah Bay is the son of a folk-singer, and ‘for a long time, his famous mother would be Jonah’s primary identifying characteristic’. Cathy Kiplinger is ‘big and blond and far more womanly than most girls could be comfortable with at age fifteen… She was the kind of girl who boys never left alone’. The two Wolf siblings complete the group – Goodman: ‘If this group had a leader, he was it’, and his rather nondescript sister, Ash.
The teenagers, as one might expect, are quite often crude, but they are also occasionally oddly profound. Some of the characters, as one often finds in highly-peopled novels such as this, are more interesting than others. As a group, however, they do work well together. On the whole, their strengths and weaknesses are different, and they mould themselves into the characters whom their friends expect them to be. Wolitzer is perceptive of her protagonists, and The Interestings seems to work best as a character study in consequence.
The historical details which Wolitzer has woven into The Interestings – the use of cassette players, for example – does ground the first part of the novel in time, almost to the point of making it a little predictable. The storyline is not as strong as it could have been, and a lot of it seems to rely upon the conversation between characters, and the ways in which they come to know, and form relationships, with one another. The third person perspective which has been used throughout does work well, but it hinders somewhat too, distancing the reader from Wolitzer’s characters. Her writing is rather deft at times, but it does occasionally tend to feel a little repetitive. Sadly, The Interestings is not the most compelling of novels; in fact, it is almost a little disappointing, particularly as it has received so much hype of late.