By Becky Luksa
It seems as if you are jinxing yourself by titling your book, The Interestings. No matter who writes that book, it is doomed to be boring, no matter how hard they try.
Even if the title throws you off, it seems as though it could be a good story. The summary makes the book sound like a fascinating story filled with great characters and conflict. But this is not so. This is the conundrum one encounters when reading The Interestings. Its lack of an overarching conflict makes the novel feel slow and, well, uninteresting.
The novel examines the lives of four friends who met at a summer camp for artistic teens and follows them from age 16 until their mid-fifties. Two of the friends, Ash and Ethan, marry and become incredibly successful, actually making money off their art. Ethan becomes a famous animator, which allows Ash to follow her dream of becoming a theater director. The other two, Jules and Jonah, give up their art and chose different careers. Jules and her husband, Dennis, are drastically less successful than Ash and Ethan. Jonah is successful in his career, but not in his love life.
The main focus of the novel is the relationship between the two couples, showing the disparity between their lives. Jules is extremely envious of the life that her two friends have accomplished, feeling as if their friendship is somehow lessened by their class gap. Ash and Ethan love Jules and don’t seem to care about money, or lack thereof. They are happy to use their wealth to treat their friends to expensive dinners and vacations, while Jules and Dennis begrudgingly accept. Jonah’s story is more of a sub-plot to the novel, which chronicles his life as the son of a famous folk singer and gay man. He is not so much bothered by Ash and Ethan’s extreme wealth as he is by the feeling that something is lacking once he decides to not pursue music as a career.
The problem is that Jules’ envy of her friends does not drive the plot. This extreme jealousy never causes any conflict between the friends. Jules silently suffers, or complains to her husband. But does not take any action. She never tries to ruin Ash’s life, or even have an argument with Ash and Ethan about their wealth or lifestyle. It’s the whole showing versus telling rule that every writer is told in Writing 101. There are some nicely shown characterizations, but they are few. There is conflict, but it is almost all internal or quickly resolved. No one does anything. If they do take action, it is in an area that is not exactly relevant to the relationships in their lives. There is the possibility for great conflict in the emotions the characters have, but it is simply not utilized in the way it should be. The whole novel seems to show these people simply living their lives, going through the major milestones of life; going to college, getting married, having children and raising them.
One other issue with the story is that many of the social elements that the author brings up, feminism, the gay rights movement, and several other political and social movements, seem forced and at times irrelevant. The political references made throughout the story, mostly ripping on former presidents Nixon and Reagan, are out of place and so jarring that it brings the reader out of the story. There is a time and a place for political commentary. If some of these elements were weaved into the story, perhaps used for characterizations instead of just trying to make a point, they could actually be very useful to the writer. Fiction is a great place to make social commentary, but often times it is best when the reader does not even realize that commentary is being made. If it sticks out too much from the rest of the story, it actually becomes annoying. Some of the points Wolitzer makes are great and important, but they stick out like red wine on white carpet.
Despite the title, the characters in the book are not all that interesting. Both Ash and Jules fall flat in their characterizations. Ash is beautiful and caring, and that’s about it. The two other aspects of her personality that the reader is given are that she’s a feminist and has the ability to lie, as if that makes her so special and distinguishable from so many other people. Jules is ugly, less talented than Ash, and envious. There are moments where the author provides great characterizations, Ash’s reactions to her brother being accused of rape, or the way that Jules interacts with her sister. More of these moments would have created strong characters who come to life as you are reading them.
Their husbands are slightly more dynamic. Dennis can battle through the fog of his depression to care for his only daughter. Despite his generosity with money towards his friends, Ethan is terribly selfish when it comes to his personal life. Jonah is probably the most three dimensional character. He is a talented guitarist who gives up his music because of a traumatic experience he had as a child, goes to MIT and ends up designing innovations to help disabled people. He is terribly closed off, but can muster the emotion and strength to confront the man who did him wrong. He is the one who realizes creativity can be part of your life, but doesn’t have to be the whole thing. Sadly, his story is limited to only a few chapters and various other mentions throughout the book.
Within the pages of The Interestings is there is the potential for a really good story. There could be really great conflict between these two sets of friends. Parts of the story are thought provoking and exciting to read, and the way the characters react to the present situation does a great job of showing who they are as people. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this to make the story good.
Front page image from salon.com. Image 1 from npr.org. Image 2 from timeout.com.
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