Sunday, February 24, 2013

Interesting teenagers turn into standard adults

Book: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Published: Riverhead (April 2013 – advanced reading copy ahoy!)
Pages: 468

Must – resist – pun about – ironic title –

Okay. Urge conquered. But now I’m going to tell you all about why I had to do said conquering in the first place.

The Interestings is about a group of teenagers who meet and become friends at a creative arts summer camp run by two old hippies and a little too much optimism about their talents. It’s one of those intense experiences that seem completely unique (to every teenager they ever happen to), designed to cement a place to look back at and say, “It all started here,” especially to mousy, awkward Jules who blossoms under the guidance of the cool kids. She discovers a budding talent for comedic acting, and she spends all summer nurturing it and trying to be the girlfriend of a talented animator and learning to smoke weed with the golden boy who doesn’t have any direction and trading secrets with his sister and basically coming of age while Nixon resigns.  

That part’s great. I love it because it DOES feel unique; each teen has a slightly off-beat talent they’re convinced will become their whole lives (not acting, but COMEDIC acting; directing; finding a different sort of music to get good at to get out from under the shadow of a famous folk mom...), and the camp is familiar enough to slip right into but has its own weird touches to become its own very specific place (mess hall next to the animation shed…). Nixon’s a little peripheral and I’m not sure why his resignation is so prominent on the book jacket summary, but whatever, establishes the summer camp as a sort of one last timeless escape from the real world before the kids have to grow up.

And then they grow up, and most of their potential gets wasted.

But wait! That’s not the bad part. That’s still a great premise. There is so much poignant irony to be mined from exceptional teenagers growing into regular adults and following their angst about either still trying to do what they love when they realize it’s not actually special or slowly letting go of what they thought were the most important parts of themselves. There’s a line in an AV Club Reasonable Discussions podcast that captures this (and, quite frankly, scares the bejezus out of me): “You are not the same person you are in your thirties as the one you were in your twenties, and those two people may in fact be fundamentally incompatible.”


Notice I said “premise,” though. In execution, the (mostly) failed artistic dreams storylines all flatten out into generic midlife grasping at straws. Even the one dude who makes it, with the awesome last name Figman, turns his success in animation into a general What People Worry About When They Don’t Have to Worry About Money Anymore plot of marital riffs and wondering if he loves his perfect children.

And once they leave camp, there’s no other central touchpoint. They stay friends, and soon after they graduate the gold boy brother disappears after being accused of raping another girl they all sort of know, and that gives his sister an excuse to keep the secret of his whereabouts for like thirty years, but really, the book should have been about that magical summer at camp, period, if they were going to lose all their personality as soon as they went home.
One late plot point I appreciated: the older Jules convinces her husband to take an offer to run the old summer camp, and – before you roll your eyes out of your head like I did when I started reading what I thought was going to be a super-Velveeta-cheesy ending – they don’t stay on forever as the new purveyors of utopia. But it wasn’t because they weren’t good at it; it was because it “just wasn’t the same,” said Jules. I also liked that her husband took her to task for expecting it to be the same and what a shitty reason that was for taking the job in the first place. If it had to go into their grownup lives, I guess that would’ve been a distant second-decent end. Ham-fisted, but better.

Although this review might be considered completely invalid because this was another advanced reading copy I read on my lunch breaks at the library and there’s a blurb that says “Please don’t use exact quotes from this copy because it might get edited again before being published.” Or something like that. Anyway, I’d give it a miss in April 2013. aHam

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