September 2013: The Interestings
Isn’t That Interesting?
In the summer of 1974, artsy Camp-Spirit-in-the-Woods becomes the refuge of six teens—ironically self-dubbed The Interestings—who share bonds, and secrets, that prove to entwine them for life. Wolitzer follows them through the decades in which the teens grow to adults, grapple with realizations about themselves and one another, and work through the joys and tragedies of life. Real Simple Managing Editor Kristin van Ogtrop moderated the discussion of The Interestings, which marked the fifth anniversary of the No-Obligation Book Club.
The Interestings: Chapters 1 Through 7
Hello, fellow readers:
I should start out with a confession: Though I have loved every single essay I’ve read by Meg Wolitzer, I’ve never read one of her books. But now I realize that I must read all of them. Where have I been? Who knew? (Well, I guess everyone else who made her a New York Times best-selling author knew.) She is just my favorite kind of writer: witty, warm, and such an astute observer of human behavior. From the moment in the first paragraph when Jules didn’t want to unfold her leg in the teepee, for fear that the others would then notice her and realize that she didn’t belong—well, I was hooked.
By now we already know how many of these characters “turn out,” at least by the time they hit their 50s. I admire Wolitzer’s way of jumping around in time, giving us little glimpses (or, in the case of the Christmas letter from Ash and Ethan, larger ones) of what will happen to these teenagers in the years to come. It is an interesting way to tell a story—do you like that this novel doesn’t have a linear chronology? Do you appreciate these hints, as it were, or do you wish the story were told in a more straightforward fashion?
Another thing I love about this novel is how it captures life in New York City. I almost laughed out loud on page 57 at the reference to The Silver Palate Cookbook and chicken marbella (which, by the way, I STILL make from time to time; yes, Meg Wolitzer, prunes finally found their context). But I’m curious to know how readers who don’t live (or have never lived) in New York feel about the, well, New York–ness of this book. Does Wolitzer make you care about that world?
I’m also intrigued by the exploration of talent as a gift and a goal. Talent, you’ll recall, is “that slippery thing” that captivates (or motivates) the Wunderlichs, and many of these characters seem to have something extraordinary: Cathy (dance); Ash (playwriting); Ethan (animation); Susannah Bay (music); Jonah (ditto). Jules, who doesn’t make it as an actress, doesn’t have as much talent as she thought. Goodman seems to have no talent (at least in the eyes of his parents); Barry Claimes appropriates Jonah’s talent. What is Wolitzer saying about talent and character? Talent and moral strength? At this point in the book, two of the characters with the least amount of talent (Goodman and Barry) are the most reprehensible. And the character with the most talent—Ethan—seems to be something of a moral compass. What does that mean? (And yet Jules and Dennis—also talentless, relatively speaking—seem perhaps the most stable. Interesting….)
Finally, I’m intrigued by the friendships between these teenagers, particularly between Jules and Ash, because I never experienced anything like that when I was younger. How many of you have intense friendships that survived your teens and later, and are still going strong today? Is the depiction of these friendships realistic?
On to the next section! I’ll see you back in a week, after we’ve finished Chapter 11.
The Interestings: Chapters 8 Through 11
By now we've finished Chapter 11, and what a turn of events! One of the things I love about The Interestings is that the characters are indeed so…interesting. There is simply no black and white here. One part of me wants to be able to file each of these characters into “good person” and “bad person” bins, and the fact that I can’t is both (slightly) maddening and (deeply) satisfying. I have a feeling that there will be nothing tied up in a neat bow, which is part of what makes Wolitzer such a superb writer.
So (spoiler alert!), Goodman has been accused of raping Cathy, a crime which he may or may not have committed. (And do we read anything into his name—good man? Or would that be too easy?) Ethan and Ash are now firmly a couple; Goodman flees the country; Jules meets Dennis and something in her seems to become calm and resolved.
How are you feeling about these characters? Do you think Jonah is undeveloped, compared to the others? I hope we see more of him soon. (I also, weirdly, miss Cathy. Will she reappear?)
What does Jules see in Dennis? If she is attracted to the talent, wit, charm and charisma of Ethan, Jonah, and the Wolf family, what is it about Dennis that makes him her life choice? Is Dennis the father she doesn’t remember? Is Dennis an acknowledgment on her part that this is the kind of person she is: that is, unremarkable? And he is an ultrasound tech; in other words, he literally sees through people. Is that his role in this novel: to give Jules (and the reader) an objective, clear-eyed view of the people she finds so enthralling?
I am also beginning to wonder about the point Wolitzer is trying to make about physical appearance. Ash is ethereal, beautiful. Goodman is extremely handsome. Gil and Betsy Wolf are sparkling and glamorous. People can’t stop looking at Jonah. And Ethan is, well, homely. Yet the most talented. What does this mean?
Finally, I keep thinking about talent and what it’s worth. I flipped back to the beginning of the book, and to this Mary Robison quote: “...to own only a little talent...was an awful, plaguing thing...being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.” Do we think this is what will plague Jules for the rest of her life?
Tell me what you think!
The Interestings: Chapters 12 Through 15
We’ve now read through Chapter 15, and I have to admit that more than once I’ve had to seriously resist the temptation to read on ahead. There is something so satisfying about a book that is able to so deftly follow the course of a number of lives—imagine the skill this takes. Wolitzer has managed to create a cluster of characters that we care about, feel we know, and follow the arc of their lives in a way that is both graceful and believable. It’s just remarkable. I’d love to know about Wolitzer’s writing process: Does she map it all out in advance (as I remember once reading that Nabokov did, on a very long series of index cards), or just let the characters take her where they will?
Anyway, much has happened in the last 100 pages (spoilers ahead!). We’ve returned to Jonah and learned about the beginnings of his relationship with Robert Takahashi; Dennis “recovers” (sort of) from his stroke, but he is an altered man. We learn about Jonah’s experience with the Unification Church. Aurora and Larkin are born, as is Mo. There is Ethan’s “Jakarta transformation,” and Ethan and Ash give Jules and Dennis the enormous gift of money to buy an apartment. And Ethan reveals to Jules—in telling her that he was not in L.A. during Ash and Mo’s trip to Yale, but was in fact at the Royalton Hotel in midtown Manhattan—that he is not the ethically perfect creature they all assumed. Betsy Wolf dies; Goodman calls Jules; Dennis finds a drug regimen that brings him back to life, as it were; and then there is 9/11, and Cathy Kiplinger reappears.
What do you think about the years in which this book is set? Wolitzer slyly brings 9/11 into the picture, and uses that tragedy as a way to reintroduce Cathy. What do we make of that connection? Is 9/11 central to this book in a way that’s not immediately apparent?
I also am wondering about Jules as the keeper of secrets. She now knows Ash’s big secret (about Goodman) and Ethan’s (about Mo). What is her role as a third partner in that marriage? I’m just not sure where that is headed.
When the friends are taking Jonah away from the Moonies, Ethan says to him, “Apparently Moon’s followers give up their individuality and creativity, which is something we’ve all valued above everything else.” Would you say that’s true of these characters? Is that true of Jules, or of Jonah? Or is that just true of Ethan and Ash?
And finally, the check for $100,000. Did that surprise you? Are you surprised Jules and Dennis took the money? If you were in their situation, would you?
The Interestings: Chapters 16 Through 22 (Spoiler Alert!)
Dear fellow readers,
Well, what an ending! In reaching the conclusion of the book, I felt both surprised by the way things turned out and that the outcome was inevitable. Is that possible?
You'll recall that between Chapters 16 and 22, Jonah and Robert break up; Jules and Dennis return to Spirit-in-the-Woods camp; Goodman reappears; Ethan and Ash split, then reunite; and Ethan dies.
There are so many themes of the entire novel that I felt really become much more apparent as the book draws to a close. For example: Are work and family opposing forces for these characters? Think of how Ethan sees work as a refuge, even when his life is “going well.” I would say the same is even true of Dennis, particularly toward the end.
Does anything from youth endure, besides talent? Goodman’s looks and charisma vanish; Jules’s ideas about the camp are upended. And yet Ethan’s talent—and Jonah’s—endure. And this was one of my favorite moments, after Jules tells Dennis about Ethan’s melanoma (but not the kiss):
“Dennis was present, still present, and this, she thought as she stayed landed against him, was no small talent.” Perhaps Dennis is quite talented after all.
(Which does lead me to wonder: Why do the male characters in this book seem to be the ones with true talent? Ash achieves success as a director, but you never get the sense that it is raw talent that makes it happen. More like pushy parents and a perfectionist streak.)
And what do you think about the dynamic between Ethan and Jules? Were you surprised by the kiss? I was a bit disappointed in Jules, but then again I suppose her reaction was human. But if she had found that, after so many years, she really was physically attracted to Ethan—well, what would she have done?
Finally, at the end, Jules realizes “You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.” Do you feel Jules truly believes that? Is that what Dennis’s role in the book is: to show Jules (and the reader) that what endures is not talent or beauty or interestingness but rather a solid, stable ability to endure life’s ups and downs?
What do you think? And, better yet, what does Meg Wolitzer think? We can ask her, because, I’m happy to tell you, the author will answer any questions we might have about The Interestings. Just post yours below in the comments by next Friday, October 4.
I hope you enjoyed this book; I know I did. Thanks to you all for choosing it!
A Q&A With Meg Wolitzer, Author of The Interestings
If you read the No-Obligation Book Club’s September 2013 choice, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, you know that the plot hinges on the shifting decades-long relationships among six fiercely bonded friends. Turns out readers aren’t the only ones who wanted to befriend some of the pals. See what their creator has to say about the group who called themselves The Interestings.
From reader dconnolly: My question for Meg Wolitzer is: If you could choose any one character from your book to come to life, and to be actual friends with, which character would you choose, and why?
Ethan Figman. I just loved him. I can’t explain it exactly, but I felt a real connection with Ethan, and I have the sense that he and I would’ve been friends in real life, and had a lot to say to each other.
From reader karingam: My question to Meg Wolitzer is: Did you do a lot of research on giftedness prior to writing this book and did you intend to make a statement about the struggles gifted individuals experience as they adjust to adulthood?
I didn’t do any real research on that, no. I don’t usually think of my novels as making statements, exactly. Instead, I see them as sort of exploring certain themes and ideas. For me, the theme of so-called specialness was of real interest, and I tried to look at various ways that specialness—and even, relatedly giftedness—could develop, express itself, and sometimes be hampered as a person matures.
From reader CatKib: Question for author…Why are ALL the characters so lacking in faith?
As with every book, I simply try to develop my characters in the way that seems most honestly a depiction of who they are, and where their interests, passions, and authentic selves lie. I try never to add on traits to balance things, but instead I attempt to show who these people are, to the best of my ability.
From RealSimple.com social media editor Rachel Stein: My question for Meg Wolitzer: Why the llamas?
The llamas were meant to be an oddity from today’s summer camps, which would never have been there back in Jules’s day. They seem so peculiar to me, and sort of inessential. I thought they embodied the strangeness of something “new” that might not belong there, but which had their own eccentric beauty.
From discussion moderator Kristin van Ogtrop, Real Simple managing editor: Is Dennis’s role in the book to show Jules (and the reader) that what endures is not talent or beauty or interestingness but rather a solid, stable ability to endure life’s ups and downs?
I tried to create Dennis as a full character who doesn’t share Jules’s past, and doesn’t fetishize specialness. He does get to say a few hard-hitting things about his viewpoint at the end, and I think what he has to say is very important in addressing some of the themes of the book. But I don’t know that I myself as the writer am globally saying that a solid, stable ability to endure life’s ups and downs is the only thing that endures.
From RealSimple.com deputy editor Maura Fritz: My question for Meg Wolitzer: How do you name characters, and do their names have greater meaning?
I love naming characters; it’s the icing on the cake. For a while at the beginning, Jules was Rebecca. But it seemed a little too soft; I wanted a name with an edge, and then I started playing around with names and was very happy to come up with Jules/Julie. Ethan, for a while, was Ethan Weiner, and then I learned there had been a cartoon on Nickelodeon called Weinerville or something like that, and I was very disappointed, because Ethan’s cartoon would’ve been called Weinerworld. But Figman, I think, is even better. I’m never entirely sure where the names come from, but I try to take a lot of time and care with the process—similarly, I suppose, to the process of naming a baby. Although, with a baby, you can’t just change your mind about their name a few hundred pages (or years) in.