In her new novel The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer dances between two time-tested tropes. It’s a tale of artistically ambitious young people who will have to reshuffle their career cards in adulthood. It’s also a study of what happens to a group of close friends when some are visited by great wealth and fame.
It all begins in the summer of 1974. Six teenagers at the artsy camp Spirit In the Woods express mild contempt for president Richard Nixon, then departing the White House in disgrace, but spend most of their time preening: “We could be called the Unbelievably Interestings Ones,” says Ethan Figman, talented animator. Beautiful Ashley–known as Ash–suggests just “The Interestings.” Plain, less-talented suburbanite Julie Jacobson, who can’t believe her good fortune to be accepted into this group of New York sophisticates, is delighted to be renamed “Jules.”
Most members of the group will remain friends for the next four decades, but its tightness cracks early on when would be-dancer Cathy accuses Ash’s brother Goodman (really) of rape. He flees to Iceland, only to reemerge decades later–at still-functioning Spirit-in-the-Woods.
This ugly drama is peripheral to the long, complicated friendship between Jules, who, failing to land work as a comic actress, becomes a not very effective therapist, and Ash and Ethan, who marry each other, though Ethan has buried feelings for Jules. Thanks to his animated TV series, “Figland,” Ethan becomes an international success, both famous and wealthy. In one of the book’s most telling scenes, Jules sends her husband to pick up a magazine that lists the 100 most powerful people in media. Ethan just barely makes the list, at number 98, but that’s small comfort to Jules, who loves and resents the Ash-and-Ethan team in equal measure. “They act like they’re in the same world we are,” she complains to her husband, “but they’re not.” Despite, or maybe because of her resentment, Jules is the best-developed and most appealing character in the book.
Wolitzer is a smart, perceptive writer, and the book is a good read, but it’s got a couple of annoying lapses of plausibility, especially in its portrayal of filthy rich Ethan. At one point, he has to beg Jules to accept a $100,000 check so she can move her family out of their crummy walk-up. (I guess there might be people so noble.) Then there’s the occasion when Ethan visits a factory in Indonesia that manufactures “Figland” T-shirts and other products tied in with his cartoon show. He is shocked–shocked–to find kids working in the factory. Ashamed, he makes a phone call or two, and presto, some of the work done there is transferred to “struggling factories in upstate New York,” where presumably, kids aren’t exploited.
Garment factories moving from Indonesia to New York? That’s a headline I’d expect to see in the Onion.