Sunday, August 23, 2015

"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer

So, I just graduated college. While I’m employed and in a job I actually like, I’m not about to miss a perfectly good opportunity to wallow in the post-college blues. So, like any good English major, I decided to find a book to reaffirm these feelings. One google search and trip to the library later, "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer found it’s place on my night stand.

And there it sat for almost two months.

While my own summer unfolded, I slowly waded through the intertwining stories of six friends who met at summer camp. The book jumps between the narratives of four different characters and takes place over the span of almost 40 years. As time passes people get sick, people get married, people wallow in post-college blues, but they don’t really change — at least not in any surprising way.

Each character has one or two defining experiences or traits that act as motivators for almost all of their actions. These are labels they can’t seem to shake — and some characters don’t even try to. There’s the ugly but talented boy. The wealthy but kind girl. The troubled but handsome teen. The depressed but big — a baffling trait to place at the center of a character — man. The list goes on. These handful of details form the core of each character in broad, almost rudimentary strokes, defining the course of their lives as they change over the next 40 years. While some go through more extreme changes than others, their future is always foreshadowed long before the reader gets the details of the plot twist. Maybe it’s a rhetorical strategy to keep the reader plodding away, but it also seems to hint at the idea of a type of predestination. The book seems interested in the idea that some people are bound for fame while others for mundane 9 to 5 jobs. The order of this inflexible world is determined by the almost mythical force: “talent.”

Talent, a central part of the art camp that brought the six friends together, is treated differently by each character — sometimes worshiped, sometimes cultivated, sometimes shyly brushed aside. But ultimately, Woltizer seems very cynical about “talent,” especially considering she wrote her first published book as an undergrad. None of the characters find happiness in talent or at least not complete happiness. The characters who find any satisfaction are the ones who are willing to settle for less and compromise on the dreams of their 15-year-old selves. In another words, they discover they are not special, despite what they’ve been told, and nor are they exempt from the disappointments of life.

The book takes a long meandering path to get to this point, however. Along the way, Woltizer asks the reader to spend time with characters that sometimes feel less than dynamic, as if each character is made out of a couple connect-the-dots points but no one actually bothered draw the line between them. The same descriptions of the characters pop up again and again adding little additional information or flesh to the skeletal sketch. I think it would be a safe bet that the reader would remember Cathy’s apparently key traits after the third time she was described as “needy” and large breasted. And after the seventh time, the reader probably has begun to wonder if Cathy is really anything more than a disembodied pair of very demanding boobs.

Mammary glands aside, the book builds an in-depth look into the lives of people who think they’re interesting. Maybe the two-dimensionality of these “interesting” people is a way of damning their own self-importance, but nevertheless it’s hard to spend hours with characters that don’t feel like fully rendered humans. The writing style is clean and plot picks up some of the character’s slack, but, as the title suggests, this is a character driven book and the characters, well, just aren’t that interesting.