The foibles and finer moments of artistic ambition and ordinary life play out among a small circle of friends in New York over four decades.
About a year ago, Meg Wolitzer published a smart piece in the New York Times Book Review about how ambitious literary novels by women are treated differently than those by men. In it, she recounts how at a social gathering a guest, learning that she was a writer, asked, “Would I have heard of you?” That he hasn’t doesn’t surprise her, but his steering her to his wife when she describes what she writes (“contemporary” novels about “families, sex, desire, parents and children”) gets her thinking. And what she thinks, so well documented in her essay, suggests that she might have answered: “In a more just world.”
Now Wolitzer has produced a novel that is big by at least a couple of clear measures — it’s nearly 500 pages long, and it covers a lot of time and drama in the lives of a small circle of friends. These characters, New Yorkers, meet as teenagers at a summer camp for the arts, where they dub themselves the Interestings, an awkward name that says more about their feelings of specialness than about how interesting they actually are. And it turns out, naturally, they’re not all as talented as they’d like to think.
Among the less lucky is Jules, whose perspective dominates the story, giving us a curiously skewed view of her not especially remarkable life framed by the lives of her more successful peers — in particular, Ethan, who parlays his gifts into an animated empire resembling “The Simpsons.” What’s most important (and elusive) for Jules, and cited occasionally by the others, is living a “big life,” a goal she defines in terms established among the Interestings. It falls to her husband, Dennis, a blindingly regular guy, to point out how much of genuine worth is lost to such a narrow focus.
It’s a small world in which these characters want to live large, and Wolitzer is wonderful at conveying that through the point of view of someone who doesn’t even see it, all the while shading in the stuff that lives, big and small, are made of, set against the backdrop of New York City and the larger world in the years stretching from Richard Nixon’s resignation to President Obama’s election.
It is in that larger world that Ethan, the one character who succeeds, does so — so dramatically as to make a mockery of the sort of success the others seem to ache for. Do they want to make art — to dance and direct and paint and write novels like this one? Or do they want to be recognized by everyone who watches TV?
I don’t know what kind of party Wolitzer was at when confronted by that guest, but I can guess. At most parties, and in most places, out of that very small world these characters occupy, he wouldn’t have heard of the male authors she mentions, either. And in that world, the real big world, I think she’d rather be, and I’d certainly rather read, Meg Wolitzer. And women, even not extremely literary sorts, might know her, and love her book.
Ellen Akins is a writer in northwestern Wisconsin.