THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead/Penguin), 468 pages, $29.50 cloth. Wolitzer is interviewed onstage by Johanna Schneller at the Toronto Reference Library on May 21. See nowtoronto.com/books. Rating: NNNN
As someone who considers her summers at an arts camp - the unique Camp Manitouwabing - some of the best days of her life, I couldn't wait to get my hands on The Interestings.
Wolitzer's sweeping novel chronicles a tight-knit group who meet as teens at Camp Spirit-in-the-Woods and maintain various levels of connection through middle age. The story itself is less concerned with life at camp than it is with how easily, over the years, talents can be wasted, wrecked, overestimated or, yes, tapped with great success.
When Julie is welcomed by the members, who call themselves the Interestings, she can't figure out why. Wealthy Ash, with her grand theatre aspirations, is so beautiful, her brother Goodman so charismatic and Goodman's girlfriend, dancer Cathy, so sexy. Jonah, son of a famous folksinger, is a superb musician, and everyone loves homely Ethan, the compulsive cartoonist.
Julie's new friends think she's funny and grounded. Ethan even falls in love with her, though she rejects him, and she forms a solid friendship with Ash. These new connections change everything about her - including her name, which becomes Jules - except for one thing. She remains a middling actor.
Ethan's animated TV show Figland, on the other hand, blows up - think Simpsons guy Matt Groening. Married to Ash, he inhabits a fantasy life of untold riches and total artistic control. Jules, now a therapist, lives in a small walk-up with her depressed husband and, despite her passionate friendship with Ash, a serious case of envy.
Wolitzer expertly navigates this rich terrain, touching on issues of loyalty, family secrets and how to keep them. And she's savvy with the narrative, moving back and forth in time and dropping teasing hints of things to come.
But two elements especially stand out: the dialogue, which rings true, sometimes painfully so; and Ethan, a superbly complex character, a man with a huge talent and an even bigger heart, who struggles with personal disappointment and the challenge of maintaining his human values in the face of Hollywood excess.