Do we still think of the American dream as just being the domain of United States residents? There are familiar threads throughout history that connect much of the world to the idea that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything, but the spread and influence of American pop culture in the last fifty years or so has seen this become a universal idea. Perhaps this is why novels that explore the American dream are so popular and widely translated - To Kill A Mockingbird, On The Road, Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby and more recently the work of novelists such as Jonathan Franzen. In The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer has created an epic tale of the modern age that vies for a place amongst the great American novels.
The Interestings is the story of six teenagers who meet through a summer camp for creative teenagers in 1974. The group decides they are ‘the interestings’ amongst a rather ordinary bunch and become inseparable. The book follows the group as their lives continue to intertwine through to middle-age in the present day, as they negotiate new relationships, family and their careers amongst a familiar landscape of the American dream. What makes this book shine though, is the discussion of failures, jealousies and fears that accompany the characters as they grow from discerning teenagers to adults that continue to struggle against, and question what is happening around them.
The coming-of-age thread begins early on in the novel, while the central characters are at summer camp. Their precociousness leads them to ask endless questions of themselves and of others around them. It’s a familiar feeling of being a teenager and just wanting to skip through the difficult years, with the hope that soaking up knowledge like a sponge will free you of the awkwardness and insecurities that abound. Like here, where the group asks their camp counsellor - who’s journey from Iceland each year to work at the camp makes her seem infinitely more knowledgable and otherworldly to the group - for advice about love:
‘You want to know whether the problems that you teenagers feel - will they follow you over the rest of your lives? Will your hearts always be aching? Is that what you are asking me?’
Goodman shifted in discomfort. ‘Something like that,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said the counselor in a suddenly plangent voice. ‘Always they will be aching. I wish I could tell you something else, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth. My wise and gentle friends, this is the way it will be from now on.’
No one could say anything. ‘We are so, so fucked,’ Jules finally said.
One of Wolitzer’s greatest strengths is the authenticity in which she is able to talk about the realities of the years in our mid to late twenties, where life starts to really take shape, often in ways we do not expect. As I talked about in my posts for Questions of Travel and Barracuda, in my twenties I discovered life after music through travel. In The Interestings we see Jules experience coming out the other side as she realises she does not have the talent to become a professional actor. But this comes after some very difficult years as she struggles to make it, and the effects it has on her relationship with her future husband Dennis:
He and Jules trusted that everything would come together for them because they were still relatively young, appealing, educated, and had started off their marriage happily.
Through her central character Jules, Wolitzer talks with empathy and honesty about the compromises and disappointment that we can experience during these times of transition, but particularly within the arts, where your heart and soul is laid bare and your success or failure seems extraordinarily personal.
“Nobody tells you how long you should keep doing something before you give up forever. You don’t want to wait until you’re so old that no one will hire you in any other field either. I already feel kind of worn out by it all and I’ve basically just started.”
There is also some incredible commentary on class in The Interestings, in a broader context but also again, particularly within the arts. This is something that is rarely talked about, especially from the perspective of those who it leaves behind, but something that Wolitzer does spectacularly well. Throughout the novel, Jules has the advantage to the reader of being the outsider looking in to an extent: living outside of New York as a teenager, the lives of her city dwelling friends is seen as glamorous and otherworldly. But throughout her life, Jules is constantly aiming for the just-out-of-reach. This is contrasted against the genius of Ethan Figman, a talented animator who Jules rejects in her first summer at camp but remains close to. As Ethan achieves greatness in his art and is rewarded with extraordinary wealth, Wolitzer creates some extraordinary discussions about life within the arts, including the jealousy and intrigue that often plague it.
The effects of sudden wealth on artists that are catapulted into the public sphere are explored through Ethan. For example, we see the contrast in class and wealth between Ethan and Ash against the middle class Jules and Dennis through the regular dinners. At first, the couples agree on affordable restaurants where the bill is shared. But once Ethan’s wealth is disclosed in a Fortune 500 list, Jules and Dennis slowly become accustomed to Ethan and Ash paying their way. It begins with the occasional dinner, but builds to holidays and greater expenses. For example, “at age twenty-five, Ethan Figman had only ever eaten a California roll, which was not remotely raw”, but once at the height of his career, he sits down with executives to eat an abundance of sushi and sashimi - the kind of opulent meal that alienates Jules and Dennis from Ethan and Ash’s world. And while Jules gives up on her dream of acting, Ash is able to keep at her theatre directing - first due to the financial aid of her parents, then by Ethan:
It was as though Jules possessed a new clarity she’d lacked until now. She understood that it had never just been about talent; it had also always been about money. Ethan was brilliant at what he did, and he might well have even made it even if Ash’s father hadn’t encouraged and advised him, but it really helped that Ethan had grown up in a sophisticated city, and that he married into a wealthy family. Ash was talented, but not all that talented. This was the thing that no one had said, not once. But of course it was fortunate that Ash didn’t have to worry about money while trying to think about art. Her wealthy childhood had given her a head start, and now Ethan had picked up where her childhood had left off.
It’s a powerful message from Wolitzer, that the American dream is still alive and well, but it takes money to make it a reality. The idea that it can be earned only through hard work is a myth in the modern age: class plays more of a role than most of us are willing to accept. And certainly once it’s achieved, class is what keeps those at the top.
But amongst this sit some truly beautiful moments. As Jules prepares to audition for a part in Marjorie Morningstar - Herman Wouk's tale of a failed actress turned housewife - life imitates art in this stunning passage where Jules explains the role:
She used to be really dynamic and exciting and filled with promise, but she’s become this ordinary, sort of boring person, and her friend can’t believe that this is the same person he used to know. I always thought it was the saddest and most devastating ending. How you could have these enormous dreams that never get met. How without knowing it you could just make yourself smaller over time. I don’t want that to happen to me.
The Interestings is not just about beating the reader across the head with messages of class warfare and political disappointment, however. At it’s heart is a beautiful story about friendship, relationships, love and family. In a way it tells the story of dysfunctional and remote families like a Franzen novel, the story of the modern American dream akin to Richard Yates, while in my mind it’s a more successful story of a modern artist than Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (which I posted about here). There is a lot to connect with as a reader: Wolitzer doesn’t hold back on the flaws of her characters, but she doesn’t tear them apart either. There are certainly uncomfortable moments but there are also beautiful rewards. I absolutely adored this novel. It deserves to sit with pride on the shelf of great American literature.
I read the first half of this book while on a weekend away with friends. On a Friday afternoon eight of us drove out of town and headed for the Mornington Peninsula for a weekend of eating, drinking and generally lying about. It was as great as it sounds. Amongst the walks along the beach there was a lot of time spent laying around reading, while others swam in the pool or tried really really hard to finish an impossible jigsaw puzzle. Over the weekend we ate a lot of slow cooked meats with salads or vegetables - the perfect food to eat when you have time on your side. But coming back to reality we don’t always have the time or organisation to eat lamb that’s been cooking for six hours. But I did find this great recipe on Gourmet Traveller’s website which feels like a slow cooked meal, but actually only takes half an hour to cook. These Spiced Drumsticks with Potato and Pickle Salad were a winner. The spices used bring American BBQ flavour but without nearly as much fuss or time required to prepare as the real deal. My partner and I had a half batch as a quick Sunday night dinner, but they would also be a great weeknight meal when you want to have friends around without spending too much time in the kitchen, or an easy dish to throw together and bring to a BBQ. The meat doesn’t require any marinating time, but the spicy rub packs a real punch of both heat and flavour. The creamy potato salad acts as a nice soothing balance, but the little hits of pickles and jalapeños stop it from being too bland. Not having raw jalapeños available, I used a few teaspoons of jarred pickled jalapeños and it worked just as well. In fact I think the heat from raw chillies would be too much here without plenty of beer or margaritas to wash it all down. But then if you’re surrounded by friends and beautiful scenery, things could be much worse.
Here is a great interview between Wolitzer and her editor Sarah McGrath on their working relationship, that also features some great discussion of ensuring that The Interestings was marketed as ‘gender neutral’. I have previously linked to this article that discusses how cover design can skew the content of the book, and as such took issue with Allen and Unwin’s design of Dress, Memory. This concept of design vs content for literary fiction by female authors is also explored further by Wolitzer in this fantastic essay for the New York Times in 2012.