Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Interestings is That and Much More

Meg Wolitzer is interesting on so many levels, especially as an outspoken advocate for gender parity in book reviewing, a subject she'll be speaking about at the annual National Book Critics Circle meeting at Book Expo in a few weeks. The question she raises is whether or not women novelists - and the idea that one must even make that distinction - are treated equitably when it comes to serious book reviews, or are women relegated to that ridiculous genre label "women's fiction." As a readers' advisor, I understand just what that means, but as a writer and reviewer I resent it as much as Wolitzer does.

A novelist is a novelist, no matter one's sex. Wolitzer's new novel, The Interestings, will likely be compared to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or, more apropos, to Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. My guess is that this book would appeal to readers of Franzen and Eugenides who, like myself, enjoyed their novels immensely - big, dense sagas that span several decades - but, I truly found The Interestings to be superior.

Wolitzer is a kinder writer for one thing, she seems to understand her characters in the same way that Jules, a social worker and one of the main characters, empathizes with and cares for her clients. I'd almost think that Wolitzer is a psychologist herself the way she delves into the hearts of the six friends, who bond at a summer camp in the Berkshires while in their teens, (my old territory) and manage to maintain their connection, sometimes tenuous, at other times living in each other's pockets, for the next thirty years.

 Jules always felt like an outsider because of her lower middle class background - she was at camp on scholarship - and her seeming lack of any major talent like some of the other gifted students in attendance at the arts camp, facetiously called Spirit in the Woods. Yet somehow she ingratiated herself with the twins, Ash and Goodman - another ironic name as it turns out - Wolf and their very wealthy family who live at the heart of the conflict in this novel.
Also in their group was Jonah Bay, son of a famous folk singer of the Joni Mitchell variety, and drawn to music himself until he suffered a sinister few months at the hands of one of mom's less than savory friends.

And then, there was Ethan Figman, a boy blessed with an incredible imagination and the drive to rise above his station. No one would have chosen this tall, gangly geek, who spent most of his time in the animation studio, as the boy most likely to succeed, but succeed he does and takes the prettiest girl in the room with him. Ethan and Ash go on as a couple to accomplish great things but even everything never enough is it? She keeps a divisive family secret and he finds that having a child with a disability stretches his ability to love right to the limit.

Jules marries Dennis, another outsider, a solid rock of a man physically but emotionally prone to depressive episodes that inhibit his ability to work. As Ethan and Ash head up multinational corporations and find that they don't need to even dirty themselves by touching their oodles of money, Dennis and Jules barely scrape by in their Manhattan walk-up, existing on the kindness and generosity of their friends until the envy and disconnect between the two couples threatens to shake their cherished relationship.

This thought-provoking, achingly honest novel is a joy to read. Ms. Wolitzer's wit and humor are on full display when she's sending up the aging hippies, the Wunderlichs, who nurture teens at Spirit in the Woods, or the yuppie helicopter families who live for their kids to the child's detriment. Oh yes, and then there's the Rev. Sun Young Moon!
 This deep examination of friendship, marriage, attraction, and love is neither male nor female, just a great read by a talented writer. One of my favorites of this year!

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