Meg Wolitzer‘s latest bestseller begins with an intricate overview of the hierarchy of privileged teenagers. In the summer of 1974, six 15- and 16-year-olds meet in Boys’ Teepee 3 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, an arts-focused summer camp for the entitled, and baptize themselves the titular Interestings.
Four of the six – exceptionally advantaged siblings Ash and Goodman, gifted dancer Cathy, only son of legendary folk singer Jonah – are the anointed ones: “like royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.” On the fringe is the “touchingly ugly” Ethan, the one truly brilliant artist who is an animating genius. The last of the six, Julie Jacobson, a scholarship student from Long Island who can’t believe she’s been invited into this “hot little nucleus,” will emerge from the tent with a new name, Jules, and complementary reborn identity as Ash’s best friend and Ethan’s unrequited love.
Over the next four decades, these six lives will intertwine and overlap. Jules will serve as the primary narrator, her perspective clouded by both envy and loyalty. Ash and Ethan surprise everyone by choosing each other and detailing their wealthy glamorous lives in thick, vellum envelopes every year; Jonah will choose robotics over music after being drugged as a child by her mother’s not-famous-enough-lover who steals his youthful nonsensical tunes; Cathy will leave the dance world for a financial empire that literally collapses on 9/11; Goodman will have to find an alternative life; and Jules will bear her less-than-stellar life from her fourth-floor walk-up (although her life does eventually include an elevator).
As the Interestings mature, they bear witness to almost a half-century of quotidian Manhattan life in the latter 20th-century-into-the-21st: the many layers of class and privilege, the AIDS death sentence until it isn’t, the lure of the Moonies, the advent of a media-savvy generation of really rich, the neverending gender gap in business and arts, growing autism diagnoses, victims of multiplying global economies, the different degrees of legal as defined by income bracket.
At almost 500 pages or nearly 16 hours stuck in the ears (adeptly read by actor Jen Tullock), getting to know the Interestings requires commitment. Temporary adoption that might be, by story’s end, whether you disdain or admire Jules, wish less control for Jonah, believe Kathy or Goodman, forgive Ash, or understand Ethan, one thing remains true: “… as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.” True that.