The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99/Riverhead, RRP$27.95, 480 pages
Six teenagers meet at summer camp and decide to knit themselves together into an exclusive group. It is the summer of the Nixon resignation in 1974, but barely a word of politics, angry or otherwise, passes between them. They are too absorbed in the arrogant confusions of adolescence. They are smart and, in varying degrees, precocious. They label themselves “The Interestings”, but they are only being semi-ironic. They are their own favourite subject, and happy to remain so all summer long.
But what happens once the leaves begin to fall from the trees? Meg Wolitzer’s eagerly awaited ninth novel, The Interestings, is an ambitious study of fall from grace. In charting the progress of her characters over the course of four decades, Wolitzer takes us through the slow onset of disillusionment, the dashing of hopes, the shock of secrets suddenly exposed. This is hardly an unfamiliar trope in American fiction, but it is handled with compassion and no little craft.
Wolitzer rarely patronises her protagonists; indeed she could be accused of being over-sympathetic to them. The gloss of teenage memories needs to acquire a patina of realism if one is to evolve into a fully-functioning adult. However heady those shy fumblings at summer camp felt at the time, should they really resound into middle age?
But it is a tribute to the author’s skill that we continue to care about her cast. Although this is an ensemble piece, the book’s emotional core lies in the humble, and occasionally artless, spirit of Jules Jacobson, a not-especially-pretty aspiring actress who is forced to take one reality check after another. Jules experiences a frisson at camp with Ethan, a klutzy, acne-ridden but quick-witted boy who turns out to be the one indisputably creative talent among the group. Meanwhile her best friend Ash, beautiful, secure and privileged, seems destined to pair off with the charismatic musician Jonah.
We know it’s not going to end like that, and Wolitzer plays her reveal early: we spring swiftly to the first decade of the new millennium, and it is Ethan and Ash who are happily married, unfeasibly rich, and more than a little smug. Jules is married to a solid man in a solid marriage which bears little resemblance to the romantic fantasies of her summer dreams.
The breadth of Wolitzer’s scrambled timeline enables her to whisk political and pop culture references into her narrative, which sometimes feel forced. On an eventful trip to Iceland in the late 1970s, we are clumsily told that “the music scene that later exploded in Reykjavik was not in place yet: Björk, the singer, was at the moment only 11 years old.” There are subplots that seem conceived only to accommodate epochal subjects: Aids, depression, and child labour overseas.
But there is some spirited writing, particularly when the action centres on the unfulfilled relationship between Jules and Ethan, whose stellar success as an animator prompts its own set of exclusive problems: “He knew his life would change in a shudderingly radical fashion,” Wolitzer writes when Ethan lands the deal that will make him wealthy. “He would probably even look different ... He was like a baby whose head gets elongated as it makes the awful soft-serve ice cream machine trip through the birth canal.”
Ethan gets the best lines, and seems the soundest character, before a calamitous failure of nerve overwhelms him. It is Jules’s husband Dennis, with not an artsy impulse in him, who has the shrewdest judgment, grasping the essence of moral dilemmas that have the rest floundering.
If this all sounds a little like soap opera, there is also a satisfying exploration of ideas. Of course “The Interestings” become bogged down in boredom as the limitless scope of their ambitions narrows, along with their arteries. In the end, as the supple imagination of youth turns into the sclerotic compromises of middle and old age, it is resilience and good faith that win the day. Summer camp is summer camp; there is no turning back to innocence. Its loss is irreversible but not necessarily devastating.
Early on in the group’s evolution, it is Jules’s sarcastic quipping that wins the respect of her new friends. “In her stoned state, [she] had the idea that all this was banter, or the closest they could get to banter at their age. The level of actual wit here was low but the apparatus of wit had been activated, readying itself for later on.”
It is an astute evocation of adolescence: a time when we oil the machinery of human capabilities without quite knowing what we will produce from it. We hanker, some of us, after that sense of wonderment and aspiration. Much of the popular culture of the past 50 years is devoted to capturing its urgency. But Wolitzer reminds us that we serve ourselves badly by dwelling on our former naivety. Nothing is finally more interesting than the rough-hewing of our dreams, and how we learn to fight back.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer