Thick, sentimental and with a narrative bestriding four decades, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings feels above all like a Victorian novel, one which finds itself as comfortable in our time as it would have been 150 years ago. It’s an American story ruled by classic English themes. Fate, coincidence, class and envy are what bind — and in some cases disperse — the six central characters.
It begins in the mid-1970s, in Spirit-in-the-Woods, a summer camp for young people interested in the performing and visual arts. Run by a couple of bohemians, the camp is supposed to be an approximation of utopia, or, as one character
remarks, the opposite of Lord of the Flies. Here the six teenagers meet and eventually label themselves ‘The Interestings’ as a sarcastic tribute to their only half-joking hubris.
Julie — or Jules as she is rechristened by her new friends — is particularly enamoured of the camp. A ‘dandeliony, poodly outsider’, she sees greatness all around her. There’s Ethan, a bright cartoonist filled with unreciprocated love for Jules, and Jonah, an introverted musician who is somehow unwilling to pursue his craft. Highest in Jules’s affections is Ash, a pretty girl with a rich family in New York. Ash and her brother, Goodman, represent a hip city life which seems to beckon Jules, while also causing her to glance regretfully at her own small-town mother and sister.
To the surprise of everyone Ash later marries Ethan, and Ethan takes on the potential of all six friends for himself — his own television cartoon makes him a millionaire. But he’s the exception. Much of the novel is about failed ambition and the burning desire to be special, and how this desire can flicker to nothing under a range of forces, not least economics, disposition and ‘the most daunting and most determining force of all, luck’.
Among the burn-outs the most peculiar is Goodman, who is accused of assaulting his girlfriend but disappears before the law can deal with him. Where has he gone? Wolitzer handles our expectations with flat calm; Goodman isn’t dead, in prison, or damaging other women — he’s in Iceland, doing nothing much. It’s as if, in a novel based around quiet diminuendos, a character who threatens to disrupt the tone must be quarantined in the deep freeze of northern Europe.
Wolitzer is much better at conveying the sweep of time than she is at relating specifics. Some of her phrases strain to be particular but end up vague or pedestrian, such as: ‘Foosball was played, that perplexingly popular game with all those knobs.’ Or, ‘the dazzling truth of his success was indisputable.’ Somewhere around the halfway point, though, the writing settles and the characters take over. Previous Wolitzer novels, such as 2011’s The Uncoupling, ended before seemingly anything happened. But now, with all this extra space, she has written something that is more absorbing as it goes along. Like the great baggy monsters of the past, The Interestings asserts its power through a slow but irresistible momentum.