Just last week, I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. Donna suggested it and told me it was her favorite of Wolitzer’s work – she’s pretty good now at helping me find books that will be compelling but fairly light and entertaining, and after starting the year with some heavy reading (Chimimanda was excellent and also sheesh full of so many feelings), that was what I needed. Donna described this novel as soapy, meaning that as a compliment.
**there are some minor spoilers here but this book is several years post-publication so you know, too bad**
It had all the markers of a book I’d love immediately – ensemble cast of characters, following these characters over several decades, shifting perspectives, retelling of the same experiences from multiple points of view, summer camp, equal parts love of and frustration with New York City, the struggle of the artist, exploration of identity, etc. etc. And it did grip me, right from the beginning.
What I have been thinking about since I finished the book is which phase of life for the characters I really identify with. The novel starts with their teenage years – roughly 15, meeting at summer camp, the 6 characters are hot messes of insecurities and anxieties, and it was enjoyable nostalgia. The progression to adulthood was also really accurate, but the most relatable story lines focused on the characters in their 40s and 50s.
That’s a new feeling for me.
I think until just recently, I was still feeling young. I’ll be 40 in July of this year, so I’m certainly not old (well, my teenager disagrees) – but I’m starting to finally feel like a real grown-ass adult. I have a career in which I have demonstrated some success, even though it’s not my “dream job;” I have a chronic illness, which feels like a really weird adult thing to say; I have my writing (and a related existential crisis about it); I have a family and a house and a car and a commute and hobbies and a political ideology and a specific perspective on religion and and and. All of these things add up and I very suddenly realized while reading this book that I am approaching Middle Age™.
I think only 5 years ago, I still would have been overly identifying with the younger versions of these characters – and now, I am acutely aware that the mature versions are the ones I would consider peers, were they real people.
Jonah, a character we spend comparatively less time with than others, is the one who hits the mark most closely for me. He demonstrated a significant musical talent as a child and a teen but due to some traumatic life stuff, he doesn’t engage with music as an adult. Instead, he gets a soul-numbing job that he is excellent at but doesn’t really enjoy, and then he spends a lot of adult-life time trying to figure out who he is. It all felt really real to me – building a relationship, excelling at work but not really caring about that, finally figuring out how to make art live within the context of the rest of his life – yeah. I feel that.
The evolution of Ethan as a character is truly fascinating. He’s the one who has It, whatever it is that makes people successful in art. He’s the one who ends up with significant, tangible, financial success based on his art and the way Wolitzer develops his sense of insecurity around that is skillful. I think as a younger adult, I would not have understood this sense of insecurity related to financial success – but as someone who is just beginning to feel like my finances are under control and we might be able to, like, do this life thing, I get it – I feel the same insecurity. Like, I should not be allowed to feel this comfortable. I should not be permitted to think that it’s ok if I get a flat tire or the dishwasher needs to be replaced because I won’t go broke over it. It feels scary to think that . I guess part of that is recognizing that we’re all just one catastrophic event from financial ruin, but still – I feel simultaneously lucky and paranoid.
Jules is the one I least want to know, and yet I can’t help but recognize some of her traits in myself – especially as an adult. When the novel ends, she is post-parenting-duties – her daughter is a young adult and Jules has already spent several years without the daily responsibilities of active parenting. My son is not quite there – still in high school, not yet driving, still needing me for things (though less and less often as the days go by). And that’s weird – to be able to see very clearly how our dynamic has changed and continues to change. Jules is kind of flagging the future for me in that way – I can see what I will be considering as the years march on and I have time to fill because my son’s life will be defined more and more completely outside of our home.
There’s also Ash and Goodman and Cathy but I felt less attached to them. That’s the function of the plot, of course – the novel is largely devoted to representing Jules’ and Ethan’s points of view, and to a lesser extent Jonah’s as well. I also think they don’t demonstrate the same sense of always reaching for someone, always searching. And that’s not something I fully understand. I recognize that, for better or worse, I am a person who makes significant emotional investments, who attaches deep meaning to relationships and people. That’s not the sense I get from Goodman, for sure, and Ash and Cathy feel a little…undeveloped? That’s not entirely accurate – for Ash, especially. I just think her development as a character is one that I recognize and don’t identify with.
Probably in 10 years, when I’m on the cusp of 50, I’ll read this and laugh. And then I’ll go back and read The Interestings again and feel some new feelings about getting older and being nostalgic and what that means for all of us.
Side note: I recently (as in this morning) watched part 2 of the original Beverly Hills 90210 pilot – what? We all grieve Luke Perry in our way, ok? In the pilot, Brenda – who is 16 years old – goes on a date with a 25-year-old lawyer named Jason. She reveals her real age, and he is understandably horrified. He ends the date abruptly and we are treated to several variations of Sad Face from Brenda. I suspect we are meant to empathize with her and feel the angsty feels that she’s feeling – but watching it now, what I feel is OMG NO HOLY COW THIS POOR JASON GUY. I mean really, he’s not poor and he’s definitely a jerkface, but still – my empathy is squarely in the Jason bucket. I think this means I am most definitely a grown up now.