Jules Jacobson is the narrator, a female protagonist who has a steady and unnerving voice throughout the novel. The story starts when she is 15 years old, at a summer camp for aspiring artists, called "Spirit In the Woods." The friends she meets during this summer are the ones she remains closest with throughout her entire adult life, and their successes, failures, troubles and triumphs are central to her own. As an akward teenager, she feels honored and privileged to have fallen into this group that calls themselves "the interestings" -- a group of rich Manhattanites with artistic talent that she comes to worship. Ethan Figman, the only one of them who does attain wild artistic success, is a central character in this novel and in Jules' life. But not many of The Interestings actually keep up with their childhood artistic dreams -- “The ones who kept up with it — or maybe the one who kept up with it — would be the exception,” Jules realizes. “Exuberance burned away, and the small, hot glowing bulb of talent remained, and was raised high in the air to show the world.” The struggles of these characters to come to terms with their talents or lack thereof, are relatable and painful, and it is the evolution of each individual from their teen self to their adult self, that Wolitzer captures so perfectly.
I am surprised at how much this book moved me, especially given that it took me about 100 pages to really get into it. The first hundred pages merely set the scene, but watching as all of these characters grow, change, succeed and fail is the compelling part. This book explores all sorts of notions of success and happiness, and how they differ in adulthood from the teen years. In the end, Jules (with help from her self-declared "ordinary" and "talentless" husband) has the realization that, "You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation,” Jules tells herself. She comes to the revelation that, “You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.” In childhood, this realization could be heart-breaking... but when Jules finally comes to it as an adult, it is a liberating notion which provides great relief. What I liked most about this book is the way Wolitzer unravels ideas of self-evolution. It is not without disappointment that adulthood sets in, but the characters are very much still themselves, which is the most realistic and optimistic approach to growing up.
I also loved the wonderful description of relationships in this book. Whether it was a romantic relationship, a close friendship, or a parent-child relationship -- Wolitzer provided so many angles and facets to each... leaving the reader wholly satisfied. Without giving too much away, on so many pages, the longing felt real, the guilt was measurable, the pain was almost tactile.
The story and the charaters were very thought provoking. I found myself thinking, What was it about this camp, was it the vulnerable, impressionable nature of the teenage years that created these deep bonds, or were the actual friendships so irreplacable that they made a lifelong impact? In the end, this novel is about friendships, talent, envy, love... and what those can do to an ordinary life. Wolitzer's book definitely falls in the ranks of other coming-of-age, epic novels like the Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides) or Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), and is certainly one of the best novels of our times.