Wednesday, May 29, 2013

You aren't that special, you know. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

This is my second post about a Meg Wolitzer novel. (See 5/8/09, The Ten Year Nap.)  Though I don't like to write more than once about an author, I couldn't help but include her latest book because it struck me as emotionally appropriate for my generation.

The Interestings follows a group of art camp buddies from age 15 through their early 50s.  Each has been told by someone that he or she is special and has "talent."  In some cases, the teenagers' parents have encouraged their talented children. In other cases, like that of main character Jules, friends have made a a camper feel unique and gifted for the very first time.  In all cases, this special state of being an artist defines these young people, gives them purpose, and, eventually career goals. 

Fast forward to the post-college years, then to to being married with young children, and on to the characters' forties and  fifties. Then, back to the camp years.  Wolitzer deftly and comprehensively collapses time when describing the lives of the four main characters; in addition to Jules, there is petite actress Ash, brilliant animation artist Ethan, and brooding musician Jonah.  Jules is the least economically advantaged one of the bunch, attending the camp, enchantingly called Spirit-in-the-Woods, on scholarship.  She has a wry, down-to-earth quality which captivates Ethan from then on--even when he ends up marrying the charismatic Ash.  Jonah is a slightly less important friend, appearing now and then in the plot, more as a cultural touchstone regarding political and epidemiological changes over the decades.

Throughout the course of the novel, each of these characters answers this question: did I ever really have talent?  In Jules' case, not long into pursuing an acting career in New York, an acting teacher convinces her to give up. For many years afterward, Jules chases the magical theater feeling she's left behind, finally making peace with it.  In Ethan's and Ash's cases, both are very successful~but was it talent or good connections that allowed them to "make it?"  In Jonah's case, talent long submerged since the camp years, starts bubbling up back up and cannot be stopped.

Any of us who have ever been encouraged by a parent, teacher, or friend, knows the power of being told we have "talent."  It often defines us: we become the dancer, writer, actress, musician, singer, etc., for years. Our interesting talent sets us apart and makes us special from the mediocre rest.  But, when we pursue our talent to its logical conclusion, as Jules does, what then? Our talent didn't feed or clothe or support us.  So, was it a waste after all?  What if we were really hacks and our family was just being nice? Wolitzer answers this last question definitively in this book: it doesn't matter.  Having been defined once as an artist, whether you were any good or not, gives you the opportunity and aptitude to appreciate art forever.

The Interestings also posits that friendship, the long-lived kind originating in childhood, is its own kind of art.  Knowing someone from childhood or young adulthood, Wolitzer says, is powerful.  Those relationships that last might get thorny or messy but will ultimately be as rich as tapestry.  Perhaps, long-lived friendships are the ultimate art.