You Can’t Always Get What You Want …

I’ve been thinking a lot about my high school besties since I finished Meg Wolitzer’s big book The Interestings. You see, though it’s been many (and we’ll leave it at that, thankyouverymuch) years since we all lived in the same town and went to the same classes, I’m still very close to a group of people I was friends with then. A dozen or so. My sister thinks we’re weirdos—“Who has more than one friend from high school at our age?” she says, with much fondness—but we bonded early, and it took. We’ve seen our share of unfortunate marriages, career left-turns, and other bumps, but we’re fierce friends.

I heard echoes of this friendship as I read Wolitzer’s lovely story. About a group of teens who meet in 1974 at a summer camp for artsy kids and become friends for life—with the egotism of teens, they call themselves the Interestings—this novel seemed to be on every Must-Read list this spring, and the premise was, well, interesting, so I went for it. Then I absolutely couldn’t put it down.

Part of the reason for that is Wolitzer’s clever voice—a self-absorbed, compelling inner monologue voice, sort of like the ongoing mental conversations—narrations—you had with yourself as a teenager (surely that wasn’t just me), constantly reviewing and comparing your fragile self to others. When you’re a teenager, everything revolves around that ego, and the inner narration is like a drone. The book’s style felt very authentic.

Read the reviews; The Interestings has got everything. The Miami Herald says it “captures the intricacies of lasting friendship, enduring love, marital sacrifice, bitter squabbles, family secrets, parental angst and deep loss,” and that pretty much covers it. But this is really a novel of ideas. (You’ll see some negative reader reviews on Amazon, and I think this is the point they miss.)

For example, there’s the art versus commerce conundrum:

The financial planner had laughed, but Ethan uneasily wondered if he himself was being thought of as an artist whose work would appreciate. Of course he was; Gil had told him as much. The minute he’d pitched his show to that roomful of receptive, giggling network executives, he’d entered the bloodstream of money and commerce. Purity didn’t mean anything, and probably never had. The word itself had pious overtones. Ethan knew a woman who called herself a writer, but when you asked her what she’d written, she’d tell you, “I only write for myself.” Then she would coyly show you her quilted journal, and when you asked to see its contents, she demurred, saying what was inside was for her eyes only. Could you be an artist if you didn’t have product to show? Ethan himself was all product, and he was allowing both it and himself to be lavished with the promise of future money. *

Because all six of the friends here are gifted and creative and fully expect to live up to their potential—Remember that phrase? You were either confident in it or crushed when a teacher or parent said you weren’t—it comes as a shock to the group when only one of them succeeds at earning a living from his native talent. How they deal with envy and disappointment and with moving on is all a part of this big story. It’s true: you can’t always get what you want. **

How do you define success? That’s another Big Idea in The Interestings (and one we’ve talked about here and here too). Whether you’re trying to succeed in the arts or some other arena, the world tends to define it in terms of money—but if money is the only yardstick you use, you may miss out on the richness of other rewards: satisfaction in a meaningful pursuit, human connection, self-acceptance … happiness. The things you need.

Big Ideas indeed. It’s also a meditation on aging, and on the family you make for yourself, and on forgiveness, and on why it’s both good and bad to measure yourself against others. And though Wolitzer presents a lot of engaging ideas, she refrains from drawing conclusions: you have to do that for yourself. The Interestings was good—really good. I waffled for awhile in the early chapters, unsure if I liked it or not (in spite of those rave reviews I’d read) but it turns out I really, really liked it. It’s long (468 pages) and dense and may not be for everyone, but I found it very satisfying.

* Transcribed from page 225 of the hardcover edition of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2013).

** But if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need (by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1968).


Tweet: Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a novel of Big Ideas. Art versus commerce, for example.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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4 Trackbacks

  1. By The Bonus Round (2013 Edition) on 3 February, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    […] See that Evening Sun Go Down (William Gay) In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction (Lee Gutkind) Interestings, The (Meg Wolitzer) Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) In the Garden of Beasts (Erik Larson) Irish […]

  2. By Women, Men, Readers, Me (Gender in Fiction 1/4) on 25 August, 2014 at 9:29 am

    […] Wolitzer, an author I admire, makes many excellent points about the perception of women authors who are writing literary fiction […]

  3. […] It’s covers. Wolitzer herself famously wrestled her publisher to the ground over the cover of The Interestings (which I think is spectacularly ugly … but to each her own). Women authors’ covers can be […]

  4. By Number 18 on 28 December, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    […] / LF Elizabeth Wein / Code Name: Verity / YA Jincy Willett / Amy Falls Down / LF Meg Wolitzer / The Interestings / LF Total = 54 Fiction = 46 Nonfiction = 8 Pace = […]