Thursday, April 18, 2013

In Love With The Interestings

The folks at The Bookstore can't wait for you to walk in the store to share this wonderful book with you. So we'll tell you all about it right now and hope you'll rush over to buy it.

The Interestings is the story of a handful of teenagers who meet at a performing arts camp called "Spirit-in-the-Woods" in 1974. The story starts with their their first heady summer together (so much so that they actually call themselves "The Interestings") and follows them through their eventual coupling and careers, and then onward toward the present, with everything that middle age brings. 

These characters get under your skin. They burrow into your conscience and demand that you get to know them. By the time you're done, they're like family.

There's Julie from the suburbs, whose quick wit gets her into the camp's inner circle ("the hot little nucleus of the place") despite her white-bread background. Ash and Goodman Wolf are siblings from the upper west side of New York who have more in the way of family connections than raw talent, and Ethan Figman is a natural born cartoonist and the one member of the group with true creative genius. There is Jonah, a gifted guitarist who stifles his own talent, and Cathy Kiplinger, an aspiring dancer whose developing curves will get in her own way. To Julie Jacobson (who quickly transforms herself into a cooler "Jules") these new friends are the most interesting people she's ever met. Most of them will be friends the rest of their lives.

For many of us baby boomers, these characters are just like us. The historical detail in this book is so rich and precise that I kept looking over my shoulder - does Meg Wolitzer know me? She must! How else could she know that I too wore Dr. Scholl's sandals and corduroy jeans that swished together when I walked? I swear to God, my brother had the exact same red flannel lined sleeping bag as Ash Wolf, with "a repeating pattern of cowboys swinging lariats." 

Like the characters in the book, I was at a camp when I heard the news about Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation. (Okay, I'll admit, it wasn't an elite East Coast arts camp, but rather a no-frills Wisconsin trailer park.) But still. I was camping out with my high school friends, and I vividly recall how the entire campground broke out in celebration when we heard the news over our Zenith transistor radios. It was like a war had ended, and I guess it had. It was a little bit like the night we got Bin Laden.

What an inspired place to start a book, the summer that Nixon would "lurch away, leaving his damp slug trail." Wolitzer conjures up many other stunning details that portray the end of one era (powder blue Smith Corona typewriters, nasty-tasting Tab, aging folksingers, Moonies, Princess phones with long tangled cords) and the start of another (Ronald Reagan, computers, our first gourmet club dinner parties with cilantro, and the mysterious disease we would come to know as AIDS). 

The Interestings start out just like many of us did when we were in our late teens. You know. Obnoxious, smart and promising. Most Boomers seemed to have this faith that something would come of our talent and promise - that we were meant for great things. And then. Time marches forward and the Goon Squad arrives.

Not everyone succeeds. Not everyone is a genius. And if it's not you (odds are it probably isn't), what do you do? Do you keep fighting the good fight, or do you settle? If you settle, are you happy, or do you have regrets and envy the rest of your life? How do you deal with your friends and family who have more or less talent, success or money than you? Does it change your friendship? Affect your family dynamics? How do you learn to love what you've got, even if it's not what you thought you wanted?

The Interestings raises big questions that are hard to answer, whether you're a baby boomer or a millennial or something in between. What a joy it was to watch Wolitzer's characters grapple with them until the very end, when a middle-aged Jules concludes:

And didn't it always go like that  . . . all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn't stop watching, because despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.
And so it goes. How interesting.

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