Wolitzer's characters don't get to go out in a grand, 19th-century, throwing-themselves-on-the-train-tracks blaze of glory. Their plight is best illustrated, maybe, by the character in her last book, The Uncoupling, who just wants to be able to go to the bathroom without her husband yelling for something or one of her toddler sons climbing all over her.
Is it unfair that this preoccupation with women's lives has led to Wolitzer being classified as a "women's author"? Wolitzer answered that question pretty well in an essay in the New York Times Book Review last year. It's worth noting, though, that, as a result of that essay, the cover of her latest, The Interestings, isn't coded as a lady book, with a soft-focus picture of some part of a woman's body or a pair of heels or a cup of tea or some girly prop like that. Instead, it's done up in multicolor stripes, as if to say, "Dudes, you can read this on the train too, without shame!"
Now on to the book itself. The Interestings is ostensibly about what happens to youthful talent once it's forced out of the safe confines of a summer camp for the artistically gifted and into the adult marketplace. Six teenagers, with varying degrees of raw talent, ambition, and financial backing to support their youthful dreams, meet at the aforementioned camp (called, horribly, Spirit-in-the-Woods) in the summer of 1974; the book follows them to the present day. Two become wildly successful. Three more give up on their art for various reasons. The sixth becomes a fugitive.
Instead, she envies her two friends: Ethan, a cartoonist who grows up to create a popular Simpsons-like TV series and become ridiculously wealthy, and Ash, who marries Ethan and who, thanks to his money, has the luxury of time to develop her own, more modest talent as a director of feminist plays. (Oh, the irony!) But Ethan and Ash are good and kind. They set up a foundation to fight evil child-labor practices and, closer to home, are generous about picking up restaurant checks and paying for Jules and her husband, Dennis, to accompany them on vacations to Venice and Mount Kilimanjaro.
There are lies and secrets amid this group of friends, and the suspense of when—and how—all will be revealed keeps the engine of the plot moving. But Wolitzer also spends a considerable amount of time simply documenting what it was like to come of age in the 70s, move to New York in the 80s, and try to maintain a precarious middle-class existence in the 90s and aughts. The characters undergo various rites of passage: from the first kiss (and feeling the first erection against your leg) to first love to dinner parties in studio apartments in fifth-floor walk-ups to marriage to children to empty-nester life, etc etc. Wolitzer writes about this material extremely well. It's refreshing to see an author describe the mundane reality of married life instead of stopping at the end of the happy-courtship part.
Naturally, as you'd expect in a novel that attempts to cover a long period of time, historical events crop up every once in a while: Nixon! Reagan! AIDS! 9/11! The rising cost of real estate in Manhattan! And in the middle of this hectic rush of time, Wolitzer loses track of what was ostensibly the main focus of The Interestings, the question of what becomes of youthful talent when it runs up against the realities of adult life and the necessity of paying the rent and buying groceries and building up your kid's college fund. When do you decide it's time to stop aspiring to be extraordinary and make your peace with ordinariness, to give up on waiting for the recording contract and take a job with benefits and a 401(k)?
Jules makes this decision easily; she realizes she never had much of a talent for acting in the first place. And the other two characters who abandon their art don't answer this question, either. When Jonah, a talented guitarist, gives up music for robotics, his decision is inspired by a very particular set of circumstances. And Cathy, a dancer, knows from the very beginning that she's built all wrong for a professional career: her breasts are too big and her hips are too wide.
Is it wrong to resent Wolitzer for the bait and switch? Or maybe just for writing the novel she wanted to write, or for letting her story and characters take on a life of their own?
Anyway, this is the novel she gave us, and it's a good one. It's witty, it's immensely readable, the characters are worth spending time with, and, above all, it tells a good story. Plus, it has a cover that will embarrass no one.
Wolitzer will be reading from and signing The Interestings this Sunday, 4/21, at 4:30 PM at Women & Children First (5233 N. Clark).