‘The Interestings,’ by Meg Wolitzer

April 18, 2013

First, let’s get this out of the way: Exactly what was Jeffrey Eugenides trying to say?

The Interestings,” the new novel by Meg Wolitzer, arrives with an endorsement from the estimable author of “The Marriage Plot” and “Middlesex,” stating that, “Like Virginia Woolf in The Waves, Meg Wolitzer gives us the full picture here.”

Now, hold on a second — “The Waves”?Virginia Woolf?

We shouldn’t blame authors for the praise they receive from their fellow writers, and careful readers have long since come to understand that a fair amount of hyperbole goes into blurbs. But still, one wishes that somebody had asked Eugenides to tone it down a little, because comparing Wolitzer’s astutely observed and carefully plotted generational novel to the most brilliantly inventive novel by the 20th century’s most brilliantly inventive writer sets up an expectation that “The Interestings” can never hope to match.

And worse than that, the comparison actually highlights one of the key liabilities of Wolitzer’s saga, which follows a group of six creatively inclined friends from their teenage years at an artsy summer camp to middle age: Like many of the novel’s main characters, who dub themselves “The Interestings” and spend their lives trying to live up to that moniker, the novel seems to suffer from an inferiority complex.


”The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer. (Riverhead)

Wolitzer is not a flashy prose stylist, and her insights, though often accurate, aren’t particularly startling. She is, however, a keen observer of human relationships and an adept creator of recognizablecharacters, and the way she charts her sextet’s progress from youthful inspiration at the Spirit-in-the-Woods camp to adult disenchantment and resignation, mostly in New York City, is expertly done.

Though each of these characters manages to be, well, interesting, if not altogether fascinating in his or her own way, Wolitzer’s sympathies seem to lie with Jules Jacobson, a chronically self-conscious, shy, awkward “suburban nonentity” who discovers her own worth within the titular clique, and Ethan Figman, a sweet and talented, if homely, cartoonist. Figman achieves Matt Groeningesque success in his adult life and winds up marrying the “small, beautiful, and bright-faced” Ash Wolf, who discovers her voice as a feminist theater director.

Wolitzer provides drama in the story of Ash’s brother, a charismatic, menacing type who allegedly sexually assaults a dancer and flees to Iceland to avoid prosecution. And there is pathos to spare in the story of Jonah Bay, the gay son of a prominent female folk music star, who never fully recovers from a traumatic childhood.

But some of the most effective moments in “The Interestings” are the quietest ones. Fine novels that chart the long-term progress of friendships are all too rare — Edna O’Brien’s “The Country Girls Trilogy” comes to mind — and Wolitzer is at her best when she shows how these relationships can be tested over time. The author is especially convincing when she describes how Jules, a therapist in adulthood, and her depressive husband struggle to maintain their relationship with the now ridiculously affluent Ethan Figman and Ash Wolf in Manhattan. And Wolitzer’s descriptions of the ramifications of new wealth are admirably wicked and memorable:

“All around them, making money, and wanting to make money, had grown infinitely more reputable,” the author writes. “These days, if you were a starving artist, you were thought of as failed; and even if your work was really, really good, no one would quite believe it. Because surely, if it was that good, someone would have discovered it by now.”

Many of Wolitzer’s most profound observations have an endearing tossed-off quality. Describing Ash and Jules’s conversations, once the two have become middle-aged mothers, Wolitzer writes: “The leisureliness of a girlhood friendship . . . was enviable, but not what either of them wanted right now. They hadn’t known in advance that leisureliness would be something they would lose, and would mourn.”

That’s good stuff, and there’s a lot more like it, some of which is truly terrific. But somewhere along the way, Wolitzer seems to have decided that merely charting her characters’ interactions over 40-odd years was not a sufficient accomplishment for a novel of such great length and historical sweep.

So “The Interestings” gets bogged down with long-winded explications and gratuitous, self-serious and often awkwardly phrased historical references: “It would be ten years before the notorious case in which another prep-school boy attacked a girl in Central Park. . . . And it would be thirteen years before a young female investment banker out for a jog in the park at night was raped and beaten into a coma.”The writing here has all the weary cheerlessness of a participant approaching the end of an all-day charity walkathon.

Would that these were isolated passages, but similar ones appear throughout, and, while easy enough to skim, they suggest something dispiriting, which is that Wolitzer feels that she must demonstrate the importance of her characters’ lives by telling us what they mean and how they serve as symbols of her generation’s promise and inevitable disillusionment. It’s an understandable impulse, but one that dulls the novel’s impact and distracts the reader from the plot.

Wolitzer takes as her epigram the words of the writer Mary Robison: “To own only a little talent . . . was an awful, plaguing thing . . . being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.” This is an apt diagnosis of Wolitzer’s characters and of her novel, as well. One wishes that “The Interestings” could just have been satisfied with being itself and doing what it’s best at doing.

Langer is the author of the novels “Crossing California” and “The Thieves of Manhattan.” His next novel, “The Salinger Contract,” will be published in the fall.

THE INTERESTINGS

By Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead. 468 pp. $27.95

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