The Interestings: Mary McCarthy done co-ed

interestingMeg Wolitzer‘s The Interestings got such positive reviews – and there was such a rush of buzz – that I hit the “buy with one click” button on Amazon.com and had delivered instantly to my Kindle Paperwhite (love it!).

Like Mary McCarthy’s seminal novel, The Group, the plot features multiple characters and their lives across decades.   Instead of eight Vassar graduates (the self-dubbed “Group”), Wolitzer’s story features six teens who meet at a summer camp for the arts (the self-proclaimed “Interestings”).   The Group moves from college graduation through a variety of professional and personal experiences, until the death of one of the women.  (The 1966 movie featured a particularly lovely Candice Bergen.) Similarly, the Interestings graduate from summer camp, go off to college, first jobs, and experience a variety of loves, losses, professional success and lack thereof, culminating in the untimely and heartbreaking death of the  most lovable of the friends.

The Interestings is the perfect book for nostalgic boomers, starting out in the mid-1970s and moving through present day.  The historical references (Nixon resigns!) and pop culture references resonate.  Given the size of the demographic – and the careful marketing, targeting men as well as women – readership should be huge.

From a literary perspective, the book is well-written and insightful, revealing the sorrow within the most privileged lives and the joy that can still be found by those who suffer deprivation.  At its heart, it is the love story of Jules Jacobson and Ethan Figman, and that story is deeply affecting. Never lovers, the two share a deep affection and regard that endures over the decades, even as Ethan marries fellow Interesting Ash Wolf and becomes both rich and famous while Jules marries a wonderful man with deep troubles and spends a lifetime struggling.

The narrative is further complicated by Goodman Wolf and his high school rape of fellow Interesting Cathy Kiplinger and subsequently squandered life as a fugitive.  Throw in the final Interesting, Jonah Bay, the song of a famous folksinger, abused by a friend of his mother’s at age 12, who turns away from his musical talent to pursue engineering.  It’s a fabulous story, well-told.

Still, I’m not sure I’m on board with all the plaudits.  Best novelist of her generation, according to Entertainment Weekly?  Wonderful, says Vanity Fair?  Jeffrey Euginedes even compares Wolitzer to Virginia Woolf! To me, The Interestings is a sprawling, engaging beach read, more soap opera than grand opera.  It’s the kind of book that you read late into the night because you are dying to know what happens next.  Surely that’s reason enough to settle in with The Interestings.

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