I enjoy reading and have always enjoyed reading since I was a kid. Nowadays I go in cycles of reading a lot of books and not reading a lot of books. Sometimes I like to read books that are supposed to be “good for you”, and books that are just enjoyable for me, like crime thrillers and art world conspiracy thrillers (think “The Da Vinci Code”, but better written).
On occasion though, I read a book that touches something deep inside me, and I had that reaction when I read “The Interestings” this past weekend. Much of the book and what happens to the characters over the space of 35+ years struck a chord and I recognized some of the thoughts and experiences as similar to my own.
The author, Meg Wolitzer, just sucked me into her world through the talent of her writing and skill at weaving a non linear time throughout the book. It’s not just a matter of starting at Point A (which would have been when the characters all meet at art camp in 1974) and finishing at Point B (their lives set around present day). To me, the quality of story was like a bunch of memories. You start thinking of an experience at one time and then just start connecting that experience to other memories and how they are related. I’m probably not explaining that properly, but the storytelling felt natural to me and easy to follow. At no time did I feel that I didn’t understand what was going on or what the author was trying to convey. This story appealed to me on a deeper level, because it tells you what happens to these characters, even the fates of minor characters. I always want to know what happens to a character outside the timeline of the book. Where do they end up? What becomes of them? I have these thoughts about real people as well, even ones I don’t keep up contact. I still want to know what they did with their lives, even if it is a quick synopsis. This curiosity probably underpins most persons’ Facebook stalking and Google searches of people they used to know in real life.
The story is centered around a core group of four characters: Jules Jacobson (later Jacobson-Boyd), Ash Wolf, Ethan Figman and Jonah Bay. Also playing strong supporting roles are the characters of Goodman Wolf (Ash’s older brother) and Cathy Kiplinger. Ostensibly the book is centered around the life and experience of Jules, though at times, it cuts away to show the life and experiences of the other four characters at key moments in their lives and how they became who they are, and what happened to them over the course of their lives. These six characters meet at an art camp, Spirit-In-The-Woods, in 1974 and become friends, and the four main characters becoming lifelong friends. These kids bond over a shared love of creativity and a belief that they are inherently interesting, and deem themselves (somewhat self-deprecatingly) The Interestings.
The book follows these characters through key, formative moments in their lives, cutting back and forth from the 1970s to the 1980s, 1990s and present day. The story proceeds in a more or less timeline fashion, but it’s not purely linear, but I think that just deepens the storytelling.
While these characters share a love of art and creativity and have high hopes for their futures, that is not how it turned out for most of them. The life trajectories of Goodman and Cathy take a sharp turn on New Years Eve 1976 when Goodman is accused of raping Cathy. The courses of their lives are forever changed, and even though their experiences are not central to the group after that night (though the repercussions of that night echo through the rest of the lives of all the characters), you still check in with them periodically and see what happened to them during their lives, how it affected them, and how they managed to go on with life.
Jules dreamed of becoming a comedic actress and creating a career for herself as a character actress in theater. She studied theater in college and moved to New York City afterwards to try and build her career. Ash went to Yale and while she enjoyed acting, she yearned to be a theater director. Jonah, who was the son of a folk singer and was a gifted musician himself, gave that all up and pursued a career in mechanical engineering and robotics at MIT.
Ethan was the breakout talent from this group. At a young age, he showed a tremendous gift for drawing and animation and that gift was nurtured every summer at Spirit-In-The-Woods by his animation instructor, who was among the group of original animators for Walt Disney. He was the one who was destined to have the most commercial success in the field he most loved. Shortly after college, he did a brief stint as an animator on an adult cartoon show, before finding his own success in his own animated show inspired by his drawings and his creative inner world from when he was a child. He goes on to make millions and millions of dollars and become rather powerful in his industry. Because of the combination of his talent and his material success, he was allowed the freedom to pursue his life’s passion. He loved his work. It energized him. It made him feel alive. In many ways throughout most of the story, Ethan had the life that everyone would dream of. He fell in love with Ash and that love was returned. They enjoyed a mostly happy marriage (until the end). He got to do what he loved most in the world and he made millions of dollars doing it. But ironically (though probably not really ironically, because I imagine that the author chose this story ending for him, just to show that everybody suffers in life), his trajectory was the most tragic.
Ash is the second half of that power duo. She was beautiful, intelligent, talented and privileged throughout most of her life (though, like everybody, she too suffered her share of tragedies). After a fashion, Ash also built herself a nice career and reputation as a theater director, though she was conscious that she was able to do that, because she had her parents’ money and later, Ethan’s money to allow her the space to create her career. She never had to compromise and take a career in a field she wasn’t interested in. She was talented enough to be a director and she had the financial cushion to pursue that passion without worrying about the day to day, mundane concerns of life, like how to pay the rent, the bills or put food on the table.
Jules’ and Jonah’s stories were the most compelling to me (even though Jonah’s story isn’t the main focus of this book), just because I could relate to them so much on a personal level. Jules dreamed of being a comedic actress, but came to the realization that she was just not talented enough to build a lasting career as an actress. She worked as hard as she could. She went to acting classes. She went to open casting calls. But in the end, that wasn’t enough. There is a difference between a dream and a talent (a line from one of my favorite TV shows that stuck with me), and just because you want something so much, that doesn’t mean that you are good enough or lucky enough to ever achieve it. Sometimes, it is just the hand that life deals you. In the case of Cathy, she was a supremely talented dancer, and she loved to do it so much. But she simply did not have a dancer’s body that would allow her to dance professionally. In the case of Jules, she just simply wasn’t talented enough to build a career as an actress. So she had to figure out where her skills actually laid, and pursue that career. In her case, she became a therapist. She may not have been the best therapist out there, but she parlayed her “funny” nature into building a rapport with her clients (patients).
Jonah was a different story. He possessed raw, natural talent for music and he loved to create music when he was a child. However, he shut that part of his life down after an unfortunate encounter with an unscrupulous folk musician who drugged him as a child and stole his musical creations and made money from them. Jonah pursued a career in robotics and technology instead. It was a career he was good at, and a career that had meaning (he built devices that allowed disabled persons to lead more independent and fulfilling lives), but he still wasn’t purely satisfied. In the end, he had to come to terms with the fact that he really did want to create music. He might never have a career pursuing music, but he could make music for himself on his own terms, and that could be enough to satisfy him.
So much of what happened to the characters hit home for me. When I was a kid, like many others, I dreamed of being an actress. I took drama throughout high school and dreamed of doing it in college or professionally. I ultimately veered away from that career track by my choice early on. On a personal level, I knew I was just not talented enough to make any sort of lasting career, and I wasn’t willing to put up with years of waiting tables or working odd jobs in the hope that one day I could build a sustainable career. I made compromises early on in life, since I chose not to pursue acting in college. My fear of being poor outweighed my love of acting. You have to really, really want it to pursue acting as a career field, and I wasn’t good enough, or hungry enough to do that.
But like Jonah, I work in a career field that I am reasonably good at, and it does have meaning, but I don’t always feel fulfilled. I feel I SHOULD be fulfilled, and maybe if I worked in a different job within my career field I would. Unlike Jules, I don’t have to worry about money in the sense of living paycheck to paycheck. I certainly don’t make Ethan money, but my career field allows me to enjoy the lifestyle I want for the most part in my off time. I live in a good apartment. I am able to live in foreign countries and travel around the world. I make enough to pursue my hobbies of painting and glass art in my personal time. So yeah, I feel like I don’t have the right to complain or not like my job, when so many other people struggle out there. But like Jonah, there is a yearning inside me to create art or do work I am truly passionate about, a job that makes me eager to get up in the morning and go to work. I doubt I could ever make a comfortable living making art, because I don’t know if I am talented enough for that, so I make art for myself.
What got me about this book is that life rarely turns out the way you hoped. Even for people who are materially successful, that doesn’t mean they necessarily have easy lives. They still experience career frustration. They might have special needs children. They may die an untimely death of cancer. Nobody gets through life unscathed, no matter what we may think of those in positions of privilege. And likewise, just because you dream of something in life, it doesn’t mean it will work out for you. You might have to make compromises when it comes to careers. You might have to make compromises when it comes to love, or you might not find love at all. Not everybody is special. Not everybody is talented, or not everybody is talented enough to pursue their life’s passion. You might not love your job, even if you should. We all wish that we are special, but the sad reality, is that so many of us aren’t special ENOUGH. Or at least not as special as we want to be.
This book had so many quotes and key passages that stuck with me enough to highlight them so I could go back to them later.
The opening quote (not from the author herself):
“…to own only a little talent…was an awful, plaguing thing…being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.” -Mary Robison, “Yours”
This quote was from one of Jules’ therapy clients (page 42)
“Janice said that she had no idea how people went on year after year, not being touched or spoken to intimately. “How do they do it, Jules?” she asked. “How do I do it?”
This passage was from Ethan’s thoughts when his father in law gives him some of his own personal drawings and wants Ethan’s feedback. (page 214)
“So what’s the verdict?” Gil asked, his voice husky with vulnerability. “Should I keep giving it a whirl?”
“The moment extended into infinity. If the point of drawing was to bring your work into the world so that other people could see it and sense what you’d meant to convey, then, no, Gil should not keep giving it a whirl: he should never draw again. No whirls. It should be illegal for Gil Wolf to possess charcoal sticks. But if the point was something else, expression or release, or a way to give private meaning to the loss of your son, your child, your boy, then yes, he should draw and draw.”
Jonah expresses this thought about his own work. (page 259)
“I’d just like to enjoy what I do for a living more. To actually look forward to going in each day. I keep waiting for that to happen, but it doesn’t.”
Jonah explaining why he ran off and joined a cult (though I have ZERO desire to do that). (page 288)
“I needed something, okay?” he said. “I didn’t even know I did, but I did. Ash, you and Ethan have each other. Me, I”m totally on my own.” He was almost in tears as he spoke, confessing his isolation to his oldest friends. “Maybe I needed a deep love that was more powerful than any other kind. Didn’t any of you ever feel you needed that?”
“Jules’s clients apparently loved her; they were always bringing her gifts, and they wrote her moving letter after they no longer came to see her. But still Jules was disappointed in how she had ended up. Even now, Ethan wanted another outcome for her, and maybe it could still happen. Talent could go in so many directions, depending on the forces that were applied to it, and depending on economics and disposition, and on the most daunting and most determining force of all, luck.”
Now this particular passage is my fear of what I’ll be thinking some decades down the road about myself and my personal life. (page 401).
“Jules thought of her mother, alone in the bed in the house in Underhill. Spending her forties alone, and her fifties, and her sixties, and then her seventies! All of those decades, alone and aching, just like the teenagers across the road, but without the reassurance that all of it would probably end in a blissful sexual fusillade. Why hadn’t her mother ever gone out on a date? How had she lived without sex or love? Sex could be love, or else, like now, it could be a very good distraction.”
And finally, realization and acceptance in the end. (page 455)
“But, she knew, you didn’t have to marry your soulmate, and you didn’t even have to marry an Interesting. 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. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting. Anyway, she knew, the definition could change; it had changed, for her.”
This book struck such a personal chord with me that at times it felt like it was tapping into my psyche. I’m not married or in a relationship like Jules is. I don’t have to make any compromises to have another person in my life at the moment. But I can’t help but feel a restlessness about my path in life. I wonder if I had chosen- not a different career field, because I really do like my overall career field-but rather different courses within my career field. I look back and wonder if I had chosen something different, or at least tried for something different, if I wouldn’t feel differently now. The endless thoughts of the path not taken. When I first entered my career field, I had a dream of where I wanted to go, and the first several years were geared toward achieving that dream. I was fairly confident I would achieve it, because I had always achieved what I wanted to in the past and it wasn’t all THAT difficult for me. So I didn’t pursue other avenues when they opened to me at the time. But then, I didn’t get my dream job, because for whatever reason, in the end, I wasn’t good enough or what they were looking for. So I’ve spent the last several years doing different jobs in my career field, and enjoying the opportunities presented to me, but I lacked the drive and the passion that I used to have, because I didn’t have a firm goal in mind. There are still some options, but it feels like the doors are closing on me, because I’ve been in this career field so long. So I struggle with continuing in this line of work. I mean, I enjoy the overall career field, but not necessarily my particular path in this career field. Should I go out and pursue something else, something that does fill me with passion? Am I good enough to pursue what I really love? Are there opportunities out there in this rough job market? Is it too late for me, and has life passed me by (which is a weird and sad thing to think when you are still young and only in your late 30s, but the thoughts are still there)? All of these thoughts and experiences in my head meshed so well with “The Interestings” and why this book resonated so deeply into my psyche and my soul.