A certain strata of middle- and upper-class America might be further categorized into two groups: those who take to summer camp—let’s call them “camp people”—and those who don’t. My sister and I fall on different sides of the dividing line. At ten years old, I braved the experience for the first time, spending two weeks in the Berkshires at the YMCA camp where my father had passed his childhood summers. I cried so hard and unrelentingly in the first few days that protocols were broken and I was allowed to call my parents and beg them to come get me. They refused, and I ended up enjoying myself but was too traumatized to return to that particular wooded enclave the following summer; instead, for the next four years, I bounced around from camp to camp, never finding one that stuck.
My sister, on the other hand, fell hard and fast for the freewheeling Pennsylvania retreat she tried first, and she returned faithfully every year thereafter. Her relationships with her “camp friends” quickly became more significant than her relationships with her “home friends.” She deferred college to take a gap year abroad organized by the camp and decided to enroll at a university where many of her camp friends were matriculating. To this day, her closest friends are the ones she met at camp.
As evidenced by her latest novel, The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer is a camp person, too. “For my parents, who sent me there and for Martha Parker, whom I met there,” reads the book’s dedication. “There” is Wolitzer’s own summer camp, and the novel, which traces the lives of a tight-knit group of camp friends, leaves no doubt that Wolitzer is bound to her camp, and to her camp friend Martha, forever.
Wolitzer’s nine novels for adults all explore, in some combination, modern womanhood, family, relationships, and creativity—subjects with which she is intimately familiar as a woman, wife, mother, novelist, and daughter of a novelist (her mother is Hilma Wolitzer). This territory, and her easy, populist style, means her work is often—unfairly—categorized as “chick lit”; though she’s said she’s a genuine fan of the genre, her own writing is infinitely smarter and meatier. With The Interestings, it’s clear that she’s written about what she loves: Summer camp is so much a presence in the novel, it’s almost a character itself.
The novel begins in a teepee at Spirit-in-the-Woods, an arts-oriented camp in the fictional town of Belknap, Massachusetts. The year is 1974, and six teenagers are calling to order the first meeting of a sort of clique they dub “The Interestings”: “The name was ironic, and the improvisational christening was jokily pretentious, but still, Julie Jacobson thought, they were interesting.”
“They” are beautiful Ash and Goodman Wolf, a wealthy, magnetically charismatic sister and brother; homely Ethan Figman, an unusually imaginative, fiercely intelligent cartoonist; Jonah Bay, the delicate son of a famous folk singer, whose talent he has inherited; and Cathy Kiplinger, a leggy blond dancer. Julie Jacobson is “a dandeliony, poodly outsider”—insecure, self-conscious, and the only one of the six to come from a small town, on Long Island, rather than Manhattan—whose life is about to change. It begins in a single moment, after she’s made a joke and Ash, offhandedly, calls her Jules: “There it was right there: the effortless shift that made all the difference. Shy, suburban nonentity Julie Jacobson, who had provoked howls for the first time in her life, had suddenly, lightly changed into Jules.”
Though the narrator is omniscient, it’s clear immediately that the novel belongs to Jules, and the first few chapters follow her transformation, as she discovers herself to be a winning comedic actress and grows closer to the other Interestings, particularly Ash and Ethan. As Jules’s life and identity become more and more influenced by and intertwined with those of her camp friends, Wolitzer dips into each of their lives, giving their perspectives the clarity of focus usually reserved for Jules.
From the first summer at camp, the novel is paced brilliantly. Though the story moves back and forth in time, it maintains a forward momentum so subtly powerful that, at various points in the book, I felt suddenly startled by how many years had gone by, and, with them, how much had changed. I felt like a mother having a moment of cognitive dissonance as she realizes that, somehow, her infant is about to graduate from high school. The course of Jules’s life, of all the Interestings’ lives, is perfectly encapsulated.
It’s the course of lives that the novel purports to, and does, examine: talent, luck, success, failure, expectations, jealousy, happiness. The Interestings’ divergent fortunes unfold as in a Jane Austen novel. At camp, the playing field is even; there is no hierarchy, only inclusion, and the encouragement of artistic expression above all else. “Just by being here in this teepee at the designated hour, they all seduced one another with greatness, or with the assumption of eventual greatness. Greatness-in-waiting.” In the real world, greatness slips out of reach.
As an adult, Jules runs quickly into the limits of her talent, and—spoiler alert—she gives up her dream of an acting career, finding a humble satisfaction in her marriage and career as a social worker. Ash and Ethan, an unlikely couple, marry and build off each other to find enormous success: With the help of Ash’s entrepreneurial father, Ethan turns his animations into a Simpsons-esque television show and franchise, while Ash uses her association with Ethan’s fame to fuel her feminist theater company. Jonah, the folk singer’s son, finds his path dictated by a traumatic childhood experience, which drives him away from music and into science, where he excels but never feels quite comfortable. A fateful night for both Goodman and Cathy forever estranges them from the group, and from their lives as they knew them.
This tableau is fascinating and well-rendered—but Wolitzer is not a particularly deft wordsmith. Her sentences lie relatively flat on the page, trotting along safely in their workhorse job of pulling the story along, never asking to be savored. (Her dialogue, especially, often veers close to cringe-inducing sentimentality and occasionally falls prey to it—“ ‘I love you so much, Mom,’ Ash said, her face collapsing. / ‘And I Iove you too, darling girl.’ ”) As a result, she can be heavy-handed with her themes: “Stopping was death. Stopping meant you’d given up and turned the keys of the world over to other people. The only option for a creative person was constant motion—a lifetime of busy whirligigging in a generally forward direction, until you couldn’t do it any longer.” We are never allowed to forget about the categorical lines drawn between the friends, about their situations, about the novel’s big questions.
Wolitzer has lately been grouped with the generation of novelists that includes Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, many of whom have written books that may come to be seen as Great American Novels. The comparison seems fair in ambition, and in scope, but not, entirely, in execution. The Interestings is serious, and literary, and sweeping, but, in contrast to Franzen, for example, who, for his other flaws, writes with a virtuosic, poetic authority, Wolitzer’s obvious, pedestrian style and tendency toward sentimentality severely limits her.
What showcases her strengths—what gives The Interestings its most organic, vivid aspect—is the novel’s deceptively simple, reverent portrayal of friendship—of, perhaps, camp friendship, specifically. With Jules and Ash, Wolitzer takes up a satisfyingly familiar trope: The golden girl sees something in the mousey girl and draws her out of her shell into a whirlwind of self-discovery. “Distantly Jules thought of the girls she’d been friends with at home—their mildness, their loyalty… . It was as though she was saying goodbye to those other girls now, here in the teepee with Ash Wolf sitting on her bed.” But, by tracing their relationship closely over the course of so many years, by developing such fully realized, multidimensional characters, and playing with role reversal and power dynamics, Wolitzer makes the dynamic much richer and more complicated. The plotline following Jonah, who’s a bit of a loner, and increasingly lost, is an affecting testament to the power of lifelong friendships. Though neither Ash nor Jules nor Ethan connect with Jonah on a particularly deep level, they come together without hesitation to support him at his lowest moments. Their early, intense shared experiences keep them in eternal, unspoken commune.
With the relationship between Jules and Ethan, Wolitzer undertakes a dexterous examination of friendship in the face of unrequited love. They bond quickly at Spirit-in-the-Woods, their acute compatibility further emphasized by their shared need for escape—Ethan from his miserable parents, who bicker constantly in their tiny New York apartment, Jules from the numbing boredom of suburban Long Island, where she lives with a mother and sister she finds embarrassingly provincial. Over the years, Jules and Ethan grow to speak their own language, and their moments of rapport are among the book’s most effervescent.
At the end of the novel, Jules studies an old storyboard that Ethan drew for an animation that was never made, depicting the two of them at Spirit-in-the-Woods.
The boy gazed upon the girl in rapture. “So what do you think?” he wanted to know. “Any chance you might reconsider?”
And the girl said, “Can we pleeeeze talk about something else?”
The next frame showed them trudging up a hill together. “All right, so what do you want to talk about?” he asked her.
“Did you ever notice the way pencils look like collie dogs?” she said, and a big no. 2 pencil with the face of a dog appeared, its mouth open and yipping.
“Nope, I never did,” Ethan said in the next frame. The two figures reached the top of the hill and walked together through the trees. Oh tragedy, oh tragedy, the boy said to himself, but he was smiling a little. Oh joy, oh joy.
Though they quickly recover each time Jules rejects Ethan’s romantic advances, he’s unable to ever entirely quell his feelings, and she never quite stops wanting to want him. It’s heart-rending but also exhilarating to observe. It’s Wolitzer, the camp person, at her very best.