Somewhere in Meg Wolitzer’s 468-page novel is buried a beautiful short story, maybe a novella. Jules Jacobson came of age in the summer of 1974 at a youth camp called ‘Spirit-in-the-Woods’. The camp of Jules’s young day was a magical place where she discovered her stage talent, and other kinds of ordinary magic about love, sex and friendship. Four decades later, Jules is in her early fifties, a therapist, a New Yorker, happily married but struggling, and in terms of worldly success eclipsed by most of her old friends with whom she played at Spirit-in-the-Woods. Then: news comes from the camp. The Woods owners need a couple to live on site and run the place. Jules and her husband Dennis jump at the chance, quit their jobs and move to the New England camp site. ‘Here, in this green and golden world, among mountains and paths and trees, Jules and Dennis would venture out together. In the woods, she would be spirited again.’
The camp is as popular as ever with artistic young people from all over the US travelling to take part in its activities. But Jules finds herself bogged down in administration, food deliveries, animal maintenance, camp newsletters, medical cover – all the little details of life that get in the way of the magic. The couple argue, and Dennis says:
You wanted to come back here… but it turned out to be hard work. And none of you ever really had to work when you were here. Everything was fun. And you know why? Because what was so great about this place wasn’t this place…. you were lucky you got to come here when you did. But what was most exciting about it when you were here was the fact that you were young. That was the best part.
Jules finally understands the problem: you cannot go back. Contra the old man’s lament, it’s not that the world was a better place when you were young: the world was a better place because you were young. Jules and Dennis quit, turning down a five-year contract to run the camp. But these lessons are not for Jules alone: ‘Apparently other Spirit-in-the-Woods alumni were eager for a chance at this job; many people wanted a way to return here.’
As I’ve said, I think Wolitzer’s mistake was to take this amazing little story and telescope it into a friendship saga that doesn’t quite justify its length. The narrative begins in 1974, when Nixon resigned the Presidency – heavily referenced in the book, a momentous and kind of magical event in itself (the day he left the White House, one staffer told Woodward and Bernstein, people started drinking in mid afternoon: ‘it was like the last day of college, or an Irish wake.’) In this summer the characters meet in the teepees of Spirit-In-The-Woods: Jules herself, aspiring actor Ash Wolf, her handsome rebel brother Goodman, geek animator Ethan. All are convinced they are headed for the creative big time: obviously, it doesn’t work out quite like that, and the story follows their compromises, disappointments and reversals.
Some of this is fascinating. Ethan, the one great success of the group, gets rich from TV cartoons but his wealth does little for him. He comes off as a brittle, preoccupied soul, still in love with Jules (who rejected him in 1974) and as impatient with his autistic son (who doesn’t seem that autistic) as his own father was with the awkward and isolative child version of Ethan. Goodman Wolf flees a rape charge, surfaces in Reykjavik and has to be subsidised, on and off, for the rest of his life: when Jules meets him again, ‘He held himself as though he was still handsome, though his handsomeness was entirely gone from him.’ Another character, Jonah the musician, is drugged and abused by an older rocker who steals many of his songs, and Jonah himself ends up in the Moonies.
Life in its beauty offers many and multiform ways of fucking up. ‘I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups,’ said Aaron Sorkin, at his Sycaruse commencement address, ‘but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.’ But in The Interestings, what is holding these screw ups together? Very little. The dialogue is a long mannered snark (apart from, I have to say, a fantastic Virginia Woolf joke: ‘Are those rocks in your pockets, or are you pleased to see me?’ which actually made me laugh out loud). Also, Wolitzer’s sense of the passage of time, her establishment of an age and a place, lacks something: she sets a 1980s setting with the line ‘the Ms. Pac-Man machine was a regular destination in the back of Crumley’s’ – which reminded me of that brilliant line in the Simpsons flashback episode, ‘This story begins in the unforgettable spring of 1983. Ms. Pac-Man struck a blow for women’s rights’ – a marvellous takedown of lazy exposition. The central theme – some people do better than others, potential is hard to fulfil, envy and disappointment results – is nothing we haven’t heard before.
Wolitzer doesn’t quite trust her characters to spark off each other, and as I say, she could have written a great short story, but wanted to write an epic novel, and the result is a book that’s interesting, but not much more.