Meg Wolitzer's fat, talky new novel begins in 1974 at an arts camp in the Berkshires where six teenagers sit around in a teepee smoking pot and discussing Gunter Grass. Yes, Gunter Grass, which gives you an idea of the kind of kids Wolitzer is writing about: smart, privileged, pretentious. ("Gunter Grass is basically God," proclaims a 16-year-old boy.) As the evening wears on they decide that because they are so interesting, they will, only somewhat ironically, name their clique "the Interestings." At that point some readers will want to gently place the book in the nearest trash can. But perseverance pays off: As their lives unspool over the next 40 years and 400-odd pages, the Interestings do prove themselves often, if not always, quite interesting.
Like the coeds of Mary McCarthy's The Group and the buddies in Adam Sandler's Grown Ups, the Interestings come together as teenagers and never lose their special connection, something that seems to happen more often in art than life. The outsider through whose yearning eyes we see the Interestings from that first night onward is Jules Jacobson, an aspiring actress with a smart mouth. An "awkward, redheaded, blotchy girl" from the suburbs, she's unsure why she's been plucked from obscurity to sit in the teepee with five cool kids from New York City, but she immediately suspects she is in love with these dazzling people and will be for the rest of her life. She is correct.
The radiant, unstable nucleus of the group is formed by Ash and Goodman Wolf, a sister and brother from a wealthy, glamorous family. Ash, like Jules, is an actress, but unlike Jules she is beautiful. Goodman is not a good man at all, but an "uncommonly magnetic" bad boy. Orbiting around them are Cathy Kiplinger, a dancer whose salient characteristics seem to be emotional neediness and her breasts, with nipples "like buttons on a sofa"; Jonah Bay, the troubled son of a famous folk singer; and Ethan Figman, a brilliant, homely animation prodigy and the most sympathetic character in the book.
Predictably and naturally, early plot developments revolve around love. After that first night in the teepee, Ethan falls for Jules who secretly pines for Goodman who has a stormy affair with Cathy. Meanwhile, Ash and Jonah begin a chaste romance. The couples shuffle and reshuffle over the decades, but Wolitzer is concerned with love and sex only insofar as they contribute to a satisfying life over the long run. The novel reads almost as a fever chart of the characters' happiness decade to decade, capturing the spikes of career triumphs, medical diagnoses, everyday malaise, marital troubles, corrosive envy.
Wolitzer is particularly sharp on envy. While all six Interestings start off with artistic dreams, only two of them, Ash and Ethan, will live those dreams, forming a family and becoming impossibly rich in the process. Jules gives up her plans for a career in theater with a measure of relief: "Acting fell away from her, along with the dream of getting so much attention — too much attention — that you could feel it collect like a fever in your head." Nonetheless, news of her old friends' achievements, money and power sting. Wolitzer devotes a chapter to Jules' chagrin upon receiving Ash and Ethan's annual Christmas letter, which arrives in an envelope "made of a vellum so thick and smooth that it seemed to have been massaged with lanolin and special oils." By the time her husband has finished reading this catalog of her friends' triumphs to her, Jules, torn between affection and envy, is surprised to see that she's downed most of a bottle of wine (read the scene in an exclusive NPR First Read).
The book is juicy, perceptive and vividly written. But 40 years in the lives of six characters is a lot of ground to cover, and Wolitzer sometimes skims the surface. Jonah is a thinly realized character, and his tale of childhood abuse should probably have been spun off into a separate novel, so peripheral is he to the tightly intertwined stories of the other Interestings. And although Wolitzer deserves credit for showing her characters interacting with the culture at large, the novel sometimes calls to mind Forrest Gump with its plethora of era-evoking touchstones. In the '70s the characters drink Tang; in the '80s they experiment with The Silver Palate Cookbook and vibrators; in the '90s they take the latest antidepressants; the new millennium is all about 9/11 and TED talks. But many of these details seem irrelevant, dropped into the story for period color — almost as if Wolitzer finds the social history of the past 40 years easier to write about, and maybe even more interesting, than the lives of the Interestings.