Monday, January 20, 2014

The Interestings

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Interestings (Riverhead, 2013).

I loved this book. I loved, loved, loved it. Okay?

I clearly need to read more from Meg Wolitzer. In last year's The Interestings, she traces the lives of six people who met as teens at a summer camp for aspiring artists in 1974 through the course of the next forty years. Some of them form close friendships, some drift away from each other, some do great things and some do terrible things. I chuckled and giggled all through the book - the ironic twist of a coda to one of the six and his run-ins with the Moonies left me in stitches - knowing full well as it progressed that something was going to happen in the end that was going to break my heart. (What made it even worse was that I was in the very early stages - the "hey, maybe I should see a doctor tomorrow" stages - of pink eye as I read the climax, got all teary, and brother, did that ever hurt.)

Drawing loose and silly connections to other novels that I've read in the last eight months, there's a hint - no more, just a hint - of the deliberate, privileged youth of The Secret History and Special Projects in Calamity Physics in our sextet of kids who figure that they are destined for greatness. There's just enough of Donna Tartt in this book's DNA to make a specific mention of Vermont's Bennington College seem like a polite thank-you from this author to Tartt. But I was also reminded of Projects author Marisha Pessl's other novel, Night Film, in the creation of an entire world of entertainment that exists only for the characters of this novel. One of the six grows up to be his world's Matt Groening, and his hugely successful cartoon creation Figland that world's Simpsons. But Wolitzer has it all over Pessl here; while Night Film singularly fails to convince that the fifteen weirdo horror films that drive that book's narrative are in any way actually memorable, Figland is so full of life and energy that I found myself visualizing the characters when the show or its merchandising gets a passing mention.

That's a critical distinction to make, because it demonstrates how well Wolitzer creates an incredibly vivid and real world. There are no illustrations in The Interestings, so how am I able to conclude what these little cartoon people look like? Her very brief descriptions of them are just that convincing, just as her simple evocation of the Moonies, or big, boxy 1980s cordless phones, or the early and confusing days of the AIDS crisis, or camp counselors on their late evening rounds with flashlights, effortlessly bring back vivid memories of our actual shared past. She's a remarkable wordsmith; her prose is just excellent, breezy, precise, and assured.

And she needs good prose, because the book does not follow a direct linear path. It begins in 1974 and ends in the present, but it flashes forward and backward as it goes. It is never confusing, and never frustrating. Quite the opposite, really: Wolitzer calmly and masterfully teases information yet to be revealed as she goes. You never really learn any of your friends' stories in chronological order. You build an understanding from anecdotes and tales. You can catch that a strong and happy marriage might have gone through a terrible patch, and when the time comes to be told about those darker times, you'll know that it turned out okay.

It's about unrequited love and the fulfillment of dreams, and friendship and honesty and secrets that probably should never have been kept. I hate that it is over. I will miss Jules and Dennis so much, and wish that we could break bread together sometime. I grieve for the death of one of their friends like he was somebody from my own past. This book is absolutely magical and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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