I was fortunate enough this weekend to have four days off and to get to see one of my dearest friends and her family. It was a lovely visit, only made better by the two hour drive to get to her house. I got so much reading done thanks to my husband who likes to drive much more than I do, and who is very tolerant of my reading needs. It’s too bad he never reads the blog because he’ll never see this compliment. Oh well him. I plowed through The Interestings in about a week. I feel like having a kindle takes the length factor out of the equation—every book feels the same, so there’s no obvious size intimidation. I won’t lie, the heft of this book is one of the reasons I put off purchasing it myself. But now I’m glad I waited, because if I’d bought it myself I doubt I would have read it anytime soon. And I’m glad I got to read it.
At about the two-thirds point, we finally catch up with Jules, Ash, and the other members of “The Interestings” in the present day. Their lives touch on all the major first world problems of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Jules’ husband Dennis has massive major depression issues and finds help with a SSRI. Ash and Ethan’s son has an autism spectrum disorder. Jonah is a gay man who loves a man who is HIV positive. They are aware of the problem of child labor in third world countries. Cathy is raped by her ex-boyfriend Goodman, and no one believes her for a long time. Jules’ therapy practice takes a major hit during the Great Recession. They all know people who are killed on 9/11. The list goes on and on. This aspect of the novel is not necessarily a complaint. I actually fully expected one of the major characters to be killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, though, and was surprised when they all made it through.
I enjoyed “watching” these characters grow from teenagers to adults starting out their careers to seasoned professionals to people having later in life career changes. Of course I related best to the mid-thirties married and having kids section of the book because that’s the age I’m at now (minus the kids), but the nostalgia aspect of summer camp and all that was cool too. An eight-week long trip to sleep away summer camp was never something I engaged in; in fact it seems like sleep-away summer camp was something that happened in the late sixties and early seventies and then faded away. Maybe I’m wrong about that. It reminded me of movies like Meatballs and The Parent Trap, with all the shenanigans that ensued. What made me sad about these characters in their middle age is how dissatisfied they all seem. Ethan seems almost afraid of his autistic son Mo. Jules is so jealous of Ash and Ethan’s “perfect” life that she almost forgets to be happy about her own relatively happy marriage, healthy daughter, and productive career. They are all pretty well-rounded and fleshed out people, though, and I liked them all in general, though each and every one has characteristics I found annoying. And that means Wolitzer did her job well. These people are fallible. They are human. And they are about as interesting as anyone you might meet, no more or less, despite what Jules thinks about her little life.
Like I said in my last post, Wolitzer has some passages I enjoyed a lot and wanted to share. I never did find the original ones but I found a couple more and I wanted to share one of them. This is from page 320, shortly after Ash and Ethan learn that their son, Mo, here three, has an autism spectrum disorder that is never identified. The Wolf-Figman family retreats to Bali to “heal,” which makes little sense to me, but then if I had more money than Donald Trump maybe I’d go to Bali to heal, too. Anyway, here it is: “For a while they’d stayed close during the absurd years of his sharp rise, having children had knocked it all into a different arrangement. The minute you had children, you closed ranks. You didn’t plan this in advance, but it happened. Families were like individual, discrete, moated island nations. The little group of citizens on the slab of rock gathered together instinctively, almost defensively, and everyone who was outside the walls—even if you’d been best friends—was now just that, outsiders. Families had their ways. You took note of how other people raised their kids, even other people you loved, and it seemed all wrong. The culture and practices of one’s own family were the only way, for better or worse. Who could say why a family decided to have a certain style, to tell the jokes it did, to put up its particular refrigerator magnets? …. There was a further divide between those with children and those without, and you had to accept it.” As one of the outsiders without children, but who maintains close friendships with many moated island family nations, I see this all the time. Some friends retreat inwards, some still manage to maintain links with outsiders. They all criticize other parents, some of them even criticize the parenting skills of their own parents. This has always confused me more than a little. Maybe it’s something I won’t understand unless I have children of my own. Or perhaps my parents are just so wonderful no one would even compare to them. And it’s too bad that they don’t read the blog so they’ll never see that nice thing I just said about them.
Yes, I enjoyed this book. Yes, I recommend it. It’s not offensive, it’s entertaining, and it’s pretty quick. I do sort of feel like Wolitzer did almost too good a job including every single major cultural issue of our era. It’s almost like she had a check-off list. Autistic kid? Check. 9/11? Check. Date rape? Check. Depression? Check. AIDS? Check. That being said, the novel does a stupendous job encapsulating the past forty years of American life (of a certain demographic) into an easily digestible tale.