Over the course of my moderately awkward youth, I attended a lot of summer camps. Day camps and sleep-away camps, camps predicated on sailing or crafting or “adventures” or spirituality, or some progressive combination thereof. Camps for all girls, where the evening’s recreations included confessions about our limited experiences with kissing; or camps for both genders, which are themselves little more than earnest and overly scheduled pretexts to kissing.
While I never made lifelong friends at camp, I appreciate having been able to spend a few summer weeks away from home, a precursor of sorts to those first days of college, after the parents leave and your universe is suddenly a dorm full of strangers and the byproducts of a thousand Bed Bath & Beyond shopping sprees. A camper, like a freshman, is abruptly forced to contend with themself as an independent person, and given the chance to decide which heretofore defining personal traits are worth hanging onto, and which might be cast off like snakeskin at the first opportunity. Camp has the capacity to let you reinvent yourself in an afternoon, or to become better acquainted with who you were in the first place.
At the outset, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings seems as though it will focus primarily on this capacity, particularly as it relates to Spirit-in-the-Woods, a beloved summer camp dedicated to the burgeoning talent of future artists, dancers, actors and glass-blowers, among other fields. It is at SITW that Jules Jacobson, an awkward and wry teenager, meets Ethan Figman, Jonah Bay, Cathy Kiplinger, and Ash and Goodman Wolf, fellow campers whose worldly upbringing Jules both envies and admires. The bonds of summer friendship come to shape the lives of these self-proclaimed “Interestings,” and the bulk of Wolitzer’s novel follows those friendships away from camp and over the years, through decades of breakups and make-ups, arguments and celebrations, professional mishaps and career successes, as the group dynamic ebbs and flows.
While Spirit-in-the-Woods is an important part of The Interestings, it is in many ways a stand-in for the much more ephemeral notion of youth, and the sometimes overbearing difference between who we were as kids and who we grow up to be, or will grow old to become. In this way, watching Jules and Ethan and Ash age isn’t just about the specific trajectories of their lives, which become distinct in ways both predictable and not. Jules abandons her short-lived dream of comedic acting for a more realistic profession, while Ethan’s teenage doodling leads him to a wildly successful (think Seth MacFarlane) cartooning career, and beautiful Ash becomes a mediocre director of feminist plays. More important than the objective quality of the Interestings’ ultimate careers, the size of their apartments or the state of their marriages, is how those realities stack up against the 16-year-old versions of themselves, the hopeful teenagers who sat in wooden tepees every summer with a feeling of complacency and belonging that they hardly knew would prove impermanent.
The Interestings is what people call a sprawling novel—”ambitious,” “sweeping,” “engrossing”—in part because it is impressive in scope: the book centers on a handful of characters whose development must extend from their precocious adolescence all the way through middle age. And Wolitzer does a near-magical job of creating these people, who rise to the challenge of seeming real and rich at every point in their fictional lives, whether at 15 years old or 50. The book is also a testament to the steady—yet sometimes abrupt—progression of life itself, taking us as it does through presidencies and political movements, through the gentrification of New York City, through the gradual transformative power of the computer age, and the sudden transformative power of 9/11.
To grow older is to contend with this ceaseless passage of time, and to find yourself quantifying that passage in ever-larger increments: months become years become decades; children who seemed a second ago to be learning their first words are now heading off to college; friends with whom you shared deep thoughts in the quiet intimacy of a camp tent are now dealing with bills and marital strife and illness. To read The Interestings is to grow old with Jules and Ash and Ethan and Jonah, and to think in turn (perhaps reluctantly) of one’s own aging, and whether one is as happy or creatively fulfilled as one’s younger self anticipated being, to the extent that one’s younger self bothered anticipating anything beyond college graduation.
In a novel as, well, sprawling as this one, there are inevitable slow patches, detours into the minutiae of adulthood that make it seem like the book itself would have been more interesting if limited to its characters’ adolescence. Some portions also feel redundant, as though the chapters were written out of order. And I can’t ignore that all of The Interestings’ main characters are deeply flawed (as people), and so are sometimes annoying, unrelateable, or unsympathetic. This, I think, is part of the point: that we are never only the most interesting parts of ourselves, that we are all bound by neuroses and anxieties and faults, that sometimes even our best qualities become faults, either with age or time or the severity of our embodiment of them. No one is perfect, Wolitzer seems to be shouting from the margins. More important, no one is as objectively special or talented or fascinating as they are to their friends and loved ones. Or as they are to themselves. Or as they assumed they would be when they were younger.
I don’t know that I consistently identified with the quiet malaise that runs through The Interestings, in part because I don’t feel particularly nostalgic for my own wry, awkward youth. There is no period in my adolescence that I could point to and say “That was when I felt most like myself,” at least not relative to the way I feel now, as a grown-up separated by over a decade from the emotionally exhausting demands of being a teenager. Youth was great in the ways expected of youth—a lack of responsibility and an abundance of possibility—but being an adult has always felt more natural to me, conducive as it is to lists and plans and the ceaseless management of Errands. Still, I found myself touched by Wolitzer’s examination of growing up, of how relationships make (or don’t make) the transition into adulthood, of how we adjust our expectations in life, and of how those adjustments affect us. Mostly, of how much simpler it all used to be. “If you’d gone to another [camp], you would have met an entirely different group of people and become friends with them.” Jules is told at one point in the novel. “Yeah, you were lucky you got to come here when you did. But what was most exciting about it when you were here was the fact that you were young.”
TITLE: The Interestings
AUTHOR: Meg Wolitzer
PAGES: 560 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Wife, The Ten-Year Nap
SORTA LIKE: Jeffrey Eugenides writes Now and Then
FIRST LINE: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.”