Julie Jacobson is a frizzy-haired, odd-looking outsider at Spirit-in-the-Woods in the summer of 1974. Before long, however, Julie – who quickly assumes the nickname “Jules” – is welcomed into a privileged group of the camp’s most popular attendees: Cathy, a dancer; Ash, an actress; Goodman, Ash’s older brother; Jonah, the talented son of a famous folk singer; and Ethan, a cartoonist. The sextet quickly bonds at camp, but maturation and scandal gradually changes the group’s core, turning it from naïve to hardened and, at times, bitter.
Plot Overview: Friends, Future and Art
After the initial summer at Spirit-in-the-Woods, Jules’s path takes a major detour. Before, she was a solidly lower-middle class girl from upstate New York who had just lost her father to cancer. After, she became a New York City neophyte, ushered into the city’s one percent of rich kids. She’s a fixture at Ash and Goodman’s apartment, and given that the other members of “The Interestings” live in the city, their tight-knit social group continues to meet throughout the school year.
Eventually, however, life adds stressors to the burgeoning bonds. Ethan, for whom success is inevitable, maintains unrequited love for Jules, though he eventually marries the lovely, feminist-minded Ash. Likewise, Goodman, a wannabe architect, jumps into a relationship with the emotionally needy Cathy that ends in tragedy and disgrace. And Jonah, the group’s enigmatic, handsome musician, struggles with past abuse and shifts his focus from art to engineering at MIT.
Over the years, the group drifts between intimacy and exclusion, but their time at Spirit-in-the-Woods keeps the accurately dubbed “Interestings” together, through divorce, money struggles, immense wealth and cancer.
Criticisms and Compliments
Here’s the thing about The Interestings: it is interesting, even as it’s wildly pretentious. The book, according to a librarian friend, is divisive; readers either hate it or love it. On the hate side, it’s snobby and elitist and a tale of friends so self-absorbed and egotistical that it’s almost a farce. On the love side, the development of the characters from teenagers to middle-aged friends is fascinating, and Wolitzer deftly captures the years between Nixon’s resignation and 9/11.
What resonates with The Interestings is its realism. The nostalgia the friends feel for camp, the ambitions and failed dreams, the pervasive envy that seeps into the relationships, it all feels natural. The dynamics between the six friends – which really whittles down to three main characters, Jules, Ash and Ethan – naturally evolve as the group ages, but not a single friend every really escapes his or her identity from adolescence (a fact made more obvious by Wolitzer’s non-linear storytelling).
Overall, The Interestings is worth a read, especially with Wolitzer’s writing, but, as a warning, the characters can be frustratingly conceited.
- Wolitzer, Meg. The Interestings. Riverhead Trade (Reprint edition), 2014 ISBN 9781594632341