If there ever was a well-meaning imitation of Winston Groom's novel Forrest Gump, Meg Wolitzer's novel The Interestings would be it. Spanning over a not unsubstantial four hundred and eighty pages, the bulk of the novel takes place in New York City, beginning with the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and ending a few years after the September 11th attacks. While the novel documents the rise and fall of six different characters from adolescence to adulthood, Wolitzer's narrative lends significant care and detail to chronicling a lifetime's worth of cultural events than the inner life of Julie Jacobson, the story's focalizer.
The story opens in the summer of 1974, with the teenagers at the Spirit-in-the-Woods art camp discussing recently disgraced President Nixon over a rolled joint and red Dixie cups filled with vodka and Tang. Julie's thoughts are on overload, revealing her as a complacent but bright teenager who is in awe at being accepted by this group of five other teenagers. Already convinced of their intellectual acuity, the group dubs themselves "The Interestings," and shortly thereafter rename Julie the much cooler "Jules," suggesting a facile, if not psychological split in her character. After her entrance into The Interestings, Jules aspires to be something more "interesting" than her working-class parents, idealizing what she perceives to be an artist's life and her friend's intellectual (read classist) families.
As a group, the Interestings represent a medley of budding artists. There's the Wolf siblings--older brother Goodman and younger sister Ash--whose parents own a Central Park West apartment so expansive the siblings call it "The Labyrinth." Ash is a dreamily attractive thespian, the aesthetic opposite of Ethan Figman, the group's animation artist who falls for Jules. Jules, however, is taken by the arrogant and handsome Goodman, who is dating Cathy Kiplinger, the camp's most talented dancer. Rounding out the group of six is the beautiful, long-haired Jonah Bay, the only son of the once-beloved folk singer Susannah Bay, who has undoubtedly inherited his mother's musical talent.
Though the six bond at Spirit-of-the-Woods, Jules eventually returns to her working class family on Long Island as the other five return to their lives in Manhattan. And here, almost immediately, is where the story loses steam, with Wolitzer seemingly hellbent on listing every cultural event across four decades at the expense of leaving her characters as flat, uninteresting stereotypes.
The reader's introduction to Jules post-college, for instance, is over a dinner party discussion about a mysterious disease afflicting a gay coworker and the appearance of birthmark-like lesions on his body. This clumsy reference to AIDS sets the stage for the novel's continuous allusions to other historical events, with Wolitzer unevenly wrapping characters' lives around these cultural signposts: the Vietnam War, the advent of AZT, the rise of the "Moonies" and the Unification Church, "women's lib," the election of Ronald Reagan, the Internet, Operation Desert Storm, Y2K, the September 11th attacks, and the Iraq War, among many others.
Perhaps the novel's most distinct example of this is when Goodman rapes Cathy on New Year's Eve, roughly one year after the group initially meets. While the novel details Goodman's arrest and pending court case, the novel minimizes--if not completely trivializes--Cathy's account of the attack, forgoing any examination of her life afterward. Indeed, Wolitzer chooses to discuss the rape by making it analogous to three rape cases that rocked the Tri-State area during the same era: the now-infamous Central Park Five case and attacks by Robert Chambers, Jr. aka the "Preppie Killer" and Alex Kelly, the convicted rapist from Darien, Connecticut who fled to Switzerland. This omission of Cathy's narrative is especially troubling given that the other characters surmise that Goodman didn't rape her and all but blame her for the so-called confusion. What's more, although her narrative weighs heavily on Ash and Goodman's futures, Cathy is the only character whose life isn't explored past the teenage years and is only referenced after the rape in conversation among other characters. While Cathy's villanization and the absence of her account in The Interestings mirrors the treatment that rape victims frequently experience in real life, the omission of her narrative feels less political than a dangerous oversight by Wolitzer.
Unfortunately, contrary to its title, The Interestings simply fails to engage the reader. Despite the promise of its beginning, the novel falters in its lack of character depth and development, ultimately pinning the novel's success on the glib lives of six New Yorkers who occupy a bubble separate from the city's racial and socioeconomic diversity. Without sufficiently plumbing the emotional lives of even the most superficial of her characters, Wolitzer fails to generate enough interest in the plot to sustain readers throughout her nearly five-hundred page tale. Although Wolitzer has been a prolific and highly successful artist, The Interestings surely cannot be her best work.