I'd heard the name Meg Wolitzer for a long time--The Interestings is her tenth book--but I had never read her work until I came across an essay called "The Second Shelf" in The New York Times a few years ago. In it she points out the way the literary establishment (publishers, reviewers, booksellers) discriminates against literary fiction written by women. The argument I remember most clearly--and which I have kept in mind every time I browse a New Books table--is that "big books" by acclaimed male novelists rarely have pictures on their covers. Usually the cover has the title, the name of the author, and that's it, as though those two pieces of data should be enough to seal the deal with the prospective reader. Literary fiction by women, Wolitzer contends, usually features imagery, some kind of visual cue to the reader that this is "women's fiction": "Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house." For a while every novel published by a woman seemed to have disembodied legs on the cover--remember that? Anyway, I saved the article as a PDF and routinely distribute it in my graduate fiction seminars as a conversation starter--trying to remain silent even though I totally support the argument.
The first shelf in my home to hold Meg Wolitzer's fiction was, embarrassingly, not mine but my daughter's. She was in third or fourth grade at the time, and she received a copy of Wolitzer's novel The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, about a boy Scrabble whiz. My daughter loved the book. I mean, she loved it; I think she's read it two or three times at this point and refuses to give it away in our family's periodic shelf purges. Next time you need a gift for an elementary school aged child, seek it out.
Then my wife gave me a paperback copy of The Interestings for my birthday last month. School was out, and I had recently turned in what I hope is the final draft of my next novel, so I finally had some time to read. Very little time, but enough. On a week's vacation to Virginia, I plowed through the story, holed up in my wife's childhood bedroom while my in-laws (bless them) watched the kids for a few hours. Wolitzer is often compared to Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, probably because she works in contemporary settings with characters and situations drawn from middle- and upper-middle class American life -- what my students often call "White People's Problems" -- but also because those guys, with all their Pulitzers and front-page New York Times reviews, have nothing on her, as anyone who takes the time to read her work can clearly see. Her cultural observation is just as sharp, her twists on old themes just as fresh. Maybe her books get buried by the inherent biases of the publishing industry, but it strikes me that the situation can't hold: eventually Wolitzer will win the accolades she deserves. Maybe she's the one whose work we'll still be reading thirty years from now. She's that good.
And what old theme is she working with here? Broadly speaking, the theme of The Interestings is self-invention and re-invention, where it shares the air with Gatsby, the Rabbit novels, and so many others. The twist here is in the scope Wolitzer brings to her subject. The novel follows a group of six friends from an arts camp in the Berkshires through their entire adult lives. Some of them become rich and famous, and some do not. Some continue with art, and others go into prosaic careers like mechanical engineering and social work. One of the characters falls away after the first section, but she is replaced, in terms of narrative workload, by the spouse of the female protagonist, who is delivered to us with all the nuance of the original six. Wolitzer's project is more ambitious than either of Franzen's big novels, and she does it in fewer pages. (And the ending of Wolitzer's novel, for the record, satisfies better than anything by Franzen on Eugenides.)
From the point of view of Jules Jacobson, the protagonist, the big question of the book is this: How are you supposed to feel when you and your friends share the same dreams of artistic achievement, of remaining "interesting" in adulthood, but only a few of you go on to greatness? Should you envy your rich, famous friends? What if the most successful friend of all is the ugly boy whose advances you rejected at summer camp all those years ago? What if he ends up marrying your best friend? (Jealous yet?) That alone is a fine setup for a novel, but because Wolitzer is approaching her subject from multiple angles, we get to consider the same problem from the opposite point of view as well: What if you are the only one of your friends to make it big? (And by big, I mean multimillionare, TV-syndication-deal big.) What do you do when you see them hurting for money? How can you possibly complain about your life to them, even if something legitimately bad occurs? Do you pretend you haven't changed, even if you know that you have?
I was not equally dazzled by all of Wolitzer's characters; one in particular, the damaged son of a hippie folksinger, felt a bit one-dimensional. That's not to say I hated him. Back to Franzen for a minute, the reason most people give for disliking The Corrections or Freedom, even if they admire Franzen's skill, is that they hate his characters -- or worse, that he hates them. Wolitzer's characters are no less flawed than Franzen's, but her tone is more generous. More complex. Even the villain of the book, the Puritanically-named Goodman Wolf, is shown at the end to be more pathetic than evil. My mother dislikes Franzen; I'm going to buy her this book.