Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: The Interestings

Reading The Interestings was one of my January resolutions. I chose it because A Beautiful Mess started a (virtual) monthly book club and this was the first book they picked. Emma wrote the post about it and her call to get reading again after falling off the wagon hit a nerve; as far as I can remember, I only read one book last year (The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling). That's not good. I should be reading more than one book a year.

I put off starting The Interestings a bit. I was in the middle of reading Inferno by Dan Brown when I saw Emma's post, and I wanted to finish it. I put The Interestings in my Nook list to buy and it was $8.99. That felt high to me (I have this thing about paying more than $5 for a book that's not even a real book), so I put it off and then when I went back to get it, the price had jumped up to $11.99. I bought it anyway because reading it was one of my resolutions. I'm so glad I did.

This is a book that was well-received by critics (examples here, here, and here), and I've lately been steering clear of those because I've developed this prejudicial attitude that can be summed up thusly: sometimes I think critically-acclaimed books are like The Emperor's New Clothes. Someone decides a book is good literature and then poof! It’s good, it's literature, even if it's barely readable (ahem, Wolf Hall, ahem). But if it becomes too popular, suddenly it's crap. Ugh. Book snobbery is a huge pet peeve of mine.  But I’m now veering off topic, so back to it.

The Interestings follows a group of friends from their teenage days at an artsy summer camp in western Massachusetts (Spirit-in-the-Woods, a ridiculously pretentious name that is so spot on for an arts camp in the Berkshires) through their early fifties. The story is told in the third person, but the main character is Jules Jacobson, who is a therapist married to an ultrasound technician, living in Manhattan. Most of the characters live in New York City. Jules struggles with the fact that her life feels particularly unsuccessful in light of the careers and income of Ethan and Ash, two other Spirit-in-the-Woods alums that have remained some of her closest friends over the years. Jules does deal with hardships (money struggles, her husband's debilitating clinical depression), but her jealously of Ethan and Ash blinds her to the good things in her life.

There wasn't really a whole lot going on plot-wise, which was fine because the insight into the characters was so good and the writing was very sublime. At first I feared it was teetering on the edge of being a little too stylized (really stylized writing feels gimmicky to me, like the stream-of-consciousness chapters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that were almost literally painful to read), but it quickly found its footing and balance, and I ended up feeling that the writing perfectly conveyed some great insights into a few different topics: being a "talented" kid and then growing up to just be "normal"; desperate jealousy of one's friends and acquaintances; living through the unfolding AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, especially in New York City; clinical depression; and dealing with other people changing, developing different interests, friends, and resources.

What I Liked:

More than anything, this book made me think about the idea of what success means, and how that meaning changes based on perspective and expectations. Though she has a loving husband and healthy child, a master's degree in social work, and a somewhat-thriving therapy practice in Manhattan, Jules is never happy and never feels good enough. If she hadn't gone to Spirit-in-the-Woods, hadn't met Ethan and Ash, and had simply lived her life along other normals like her sister and mother, would she feel like such a failure? Do we set our children up for disappointment when we surround them with people who are richer, smarter, more talented than them, and tell them that that are just as smart and talented as those kids, that they can achieve all the things those kids can achieve? Maybe yes, maybe no. It does seem to be the case for Jules, but Ethan blossomed at Spirit-in-the-Woods (though admittedly his talent was never in doubt), and he made the connections there that allowed him to become massively successful.

The characters are generally likeable, though written to be real humans with real flaws. I liked Jules and Ethan the most, which I guess Wolitzer probably did too based on how she wrote them. I obviously disliked Goodman; the author gave him no redeeming qualities. I thought Wolitzer's approach to Ash was really interesting. Ash was entitled, hypocritical, and completely out of touch with the real world, yet it was difficult to actually dislike her. I guess this is why Jules, Ethan, and Jonah (the other original camper who stood the test of time) stuck with her all those years.

What I Didn't Like:

I didn't like the way the second-generation children were written. Well, Rory was ok. Larkin was a weird, Dickensian child who spoke like a tiny adult; I didn't buy her at all (hey, maybe there are kids like that out there, I just don't know any of them). And poor Mo. Mo felt like the sacrificial lamb of the book. Wolitzer really made him out to be quite an albatross for Ethan and Ash. I kept wondering if people who had children or grandchildren "on the spectrum" as Ash liked to say were offended when reading it. I read recently about an outcry that arose when Suzanne Wright (co-founder of Autism Speaks) wrote an essay about autism being a disease that ruins peoples' lives. Some activists were angry about it. Mo really represented a very bleak portrait of autism, and I could see people disliking that aspect of the book if they were angry about what Wright said.

The Bottom Line:

I liked this book very, very much. It was moving (I cried at the end), funny, and touched on so many issues that are just real. It’s not a light, feel-good book, but it’s not dark and desolate either. I guess in that way it’s like life. Up and down, happy and sad, but ultimately beautiful.

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