Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The very successful Missouri-based DIY/lifestyle blog A Beautiful Mess has started a book club!  I read their first selection, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  While Emma of A Beautiful Mess posted some thought-provoking responses to the discussion questions she posted, I won't be responding to the questions since I don't want to spoil the book for you.  Instead I will give you a review so you can decide to read The Interestings yourself and then take a look at their discussion.

Wolizter's novel follows the lives of a group of teenagers who met at an art camp in the 1970s.  There's Ethan Figman, animation wizard; Jonah Bay, talented son of a famous folksinger; Ash Wolf, aspiring feminist actor; Goodman Wolf, Ash's architect brother; Cathy Klipinger, dancer with a womanly body; and Jules Jacobson, funny girl.

Jules, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, Ash, and Goodman spend a summer at camp together and form an important bond.  Before this, Jules was an awkward teenage girl mourning the loss of her father.  After she meets these five kids, her life shifts directions.  That summer Jules discovers creativity and a love for the arts, but more importantly she discovers a wealthy, stylish family, Ash and Goodman’s.  Ash, Goodman, and the Wolf parents devour Jules, command her attention, sway her morals, and engross her until she cannot tell where they begin and she ends, as symbolized in an scene where an aerial photo is being taken of the all the campers lying on the ground creating giant letters with their bodies.  Jules feet touch Goodman’s head, and Ethan’s feet rest on Jules head, creating a seamless limb of the larger being created by the campers.
After that first life-changing summer, the group of friends remain as close as possible.  Jules takes the train from her boring, ordinary New York suburb into the glittering NYC to spend weekends with the Wolf family and Ethan, Jonah, and Cathy, who all live in the city.  They support each other’s creative pursuits: Cathy’s dance, Ethan’s animation, Jules’ and Ash’s acting.  Couples develop within the group, one ultimately changing the lives of all six of them.

Meg Wolizter’s writing is so naked and her imagery fresh and creative.  Two main themes in the novel are the relevancy of the arts and jealousy.  The book focuses on a group of people who each have talent, some greater than others, and shows how that affects their career choices.  In some cases, like Ethan’s and Ash’s, money allows them to pursue their talent as a profession and acquire fame, respect, and more money.  Cathy and Jonah have truly great talent but ultimately choose different fields career-wise for various reasons.  Jules and Goodman both struggle to find and develop their talents, and Jules finally turns her attention to another field.  This brings us to the second theme of jealousy.  Jules, having given up acting, struggles with her envy for her friends Ethan and Ash and the success they experience in the arts.  Jules’s jealousy taints her marriage and career and keeps her from seeing her life as full and happy.

The themes of art’s usefulness and jealousy spoke to me personally.  I seem to be reading a lot of books that speak to me personally, such as The Bell Jar.  This should make obvious sense since I am the one who decides what I read, but as a former English major, this is still a new phenomenon for me. But this one I actually didn't pick out.  I didn't know anything about this book before I blindly checked out the DIY blog's book club selection from the library, so I'm happy that I found it relevant.  The question of art’s importance in today’s job market is an ever-present concern for liberal arts graduates like me.  Where do we use the artistic skills we were praised for in high school and college in the “real world”?

Some of the criticism I found while scrolling through the comments of A Beautiful Mess’s discussion post labeled Jules as a selfish complainer.  This is true.  Jules is selfish and allows her envy to consume her at times.  Ash and Goodman are selfish too, but it is manifested in different ways than Jules.  The characters’ selfishness and other imperfections make them real.  It makes them human and raw and ugly at times.  But the humanity makes the novel worthwhile.  There is a section in Part II where Jules and her self-pitying get to be quite annoying, but in Part III, the plot starts to come full circle, foreshadowing is fulfilled, and you’re left with great imagery and themes to meditate on.

This passage is an example of the great insight Wolizter has for the problem artistic people have when finding their purpose in life.  I loved this advice Ethan gave Jonah after he confided in Ethan about his wasted musical talent.

The book club's February selection is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, which was getting a lot of hype even before its film adaptation was announced for this summer.  You should join me in reading this one!!  A Beautiful Mess will be posting discussion questions at the end of February, and I will be reviewing it later this month as well.

Tomorrow I'll be posting about Eve Ensler’s The Good Body, so stayed tuned for that!  (Two posts in a row! I know!)

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