The Interestings

by Meg Wolitzer, (Riverhead Books, $27.95, 468 pages)

In novels like The Ten-Year Nap and The Uncoupling, Meg Wolitzer has demonstrated she’s a keen-eyed observer of the foibles and follies of contemporary American life. It’s a sad fact, however, that – like too many women writers – her fine work has been eclipsed by her male counterparts, often less talented ones. Her latest novel, The Interestings, is an absorbing, expansive story of the triumphs and disappointments of six people whose friendships are forged at a Massachusetts summer camp and whose lives and loves are linked forever thereafter.

At Spirit-in-the-Woods, a performing and visual arts camp run by two aging Socialists and denizens of the Greenwich Village folk music scene, six 15-year-olds meet in the summer of 1974, “under the auspices of talent.” The only one of the group not from New York City is Julie Jacobson (immediately nicknamed “Jules” by her camp friends). She resides unhappily in a nondescript Long Island town with her widowed mother and sour older sister.

The other “Interestings,” a name they immodestly confer on themselves because, as one of them puts it, “we are clearly the most interesting people who ever lived,” include golden girl Ash Wolf and her troubled brother Goodman, the offspring of a privileged family; Jonah Bay, who’s the son of a once prominent folksinger and who’s just beginning to come to grips with his sexual identity; and Cathy Kiplinger, whose body changes will make it unlikely she’ll achieve the dancing career she covets. But the most intriguing member of the group is Ethan Figman, a physically and emotionally awkward young man from a troubled home who’s been gifted with exceptional talent as a cartoonist.

Wolitzer employs multiple points of view to tell the story of this group over the next 35 years. By far, the dominant one is that of Jules. She brings to the story the outsider’s perspective, recognizing after she finishes college and moves to New York City that she won’t succeed as a comic actress. Instead, she becomes a social worker and marries a man who struggles with depression.

Jules, who “existed somewhere on the axis between Ethan and Ash,” is defined by her relationship to them, and the story gains much of its emotional weight from the cool incisiveness of her observations, as when she understands, talking to her kindergarten-age daughter one day, that “Some dreams in life were attainable, and others weren’t, no matter how much they were desired.”

Ethan draws on his miserable childhood to create a “wacky but elegantly witty nighttime animated cartoon” called Figland, which features the adventures of his alter ego, Walter Figman, on an imaginary planet. The series achieves Simpsons-like success, and Ethan and Ash, herself a talented director of feminist theater and an unlikely match for the homely Ethan, find themselves with unimaginable wealth before they leave their 20s. These accomplishments create a tension between their lives and that of Jules and her family, one that pulses through the story. Less compelling are the subplots revolving around a rape charge against Goodman Wolf and the struggle of Jonah Bay, a designer of robotics for disabled people, to deal with his mother’s legacy.

Wolitzer skillfully and unobtrusively deals with several big themes – professional ambition, jealousy, the perils of success and the burden of a life that doesn’t match one’s early expectations – all without sacrificing the obligation of the novelist to tell a good story. Whether it’s the AIDS crisis, the rise of the new rich in the 1980s or the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City, she also deftly touches some of the bases of contemporary social and cultural life in the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of this one. But even without all this rich texture, The Interestings can be enjoyed simply as a terrifically absorbing melodrama, as the lives of the characters, in all their complexity, move through the journey that is life.

Whether the relationships begin at a summer camp or at some other point in adolescence, many of us have formed friendships we imagine as the “perfect, unbroken, lifelong circle” Wolitzers’ characters picture for themselves. But it takes a talented writer like Meg Wolitzer to remind us how “clearly life took people and shook them around until finally they were unrecognizable even to those who had once known them well.” In its best moments (and there are many), The Interestings feels as vital and tangible as life itself. It’s hard to ask more than that from any novel.