who doesn’t have a soft spot in their heart for memories of summer camp? forging lifelong friendships, spending evenings around a camp fire, indulging your inner artist and of course, making plans to do it all again next year-what’s not to love? just the thought of summer camp reminds us of the innocence of youth, the pervasiveness of dreams, and how easy it was to think the previous two were indefinite.
Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings” tells the story of how the summer camp experience proved to be a formative one indeed for a group of kids in New York in the 70s. the differences between the campers are not immediately apparent – some aren’t as well off as others, some have famous parents but don’t talk about it, and the natural talent at this camp for the creatively gifted is more plentiful in some… but for the most part, the general awkwardness of teenagers helps cloud these issues.
unlike traditional coming-of-age tales, the book hits its stride after the teens grow, enter college, and can no longer return to camp. Did they set themselves up for lucrative careers while following the creative instincts they honed in those magical summers at Spirit-in-the-Woods? did they make errors in judgment that will haunt them forever after the idyllic days of their youth? what makes “the Interestings” er.. interesting (sorry, i had to) is the carefully honed disparity between the haves and the have-nots. we examine challenges from the perspective of the privileged, and somehow manage not to hate them for their first-world-problems. then, we follow those youth into middle age and see what happens.
the core group members work hard, pair off, and start families while each achieving varying levels of success in their own eyes. one common thread i enjoyed in the book was how the founders of the camp weigh in occasionally, quizzing each other on the names of former campers and who was talented in which way. out of the original group, one couple acquires wealth beyond imagination, and the definitions of envy and jealousy toward a loved one is unflinchingly examined by our main character Jules: “Jealousy was essentially ‘I want what you have,’ while envy was ‘I want what you have, but I also want to take it away so you can’t have it.'” Although she is jealous of her friends’ great resources, and despairs at the differences between them that keep their friendship from feeling normal, she is also highly protective of the relationship. This is demonstrated in the hilarious and dirty nickname she bestows upon a rival couple for her friends’ affections that also shared their freedom to purchase planes, go on trips, and build a sound proof play room for their children without a second thought.
the financial aspect of the friendship is not even the most compelling part of their lives. job satisfaction, the expectations of others, and the burden of being labeled “gifted” at a young age all play into their realities. the aspects of our lives that can and cannot be controlled sit below the surface as great equalizers.
This novel would have a sweeping feel to it if it wasn’t written in such an intimate way. We are privy to embarrassingly personal details of these characters’ lives… the tiny moments of shame that they carry around inside of them… the guilt they harbor when looking at those they’re meant to love the deepest. Set in my favorite decade and written with a wry grace, it was a totally enjoyable and engrossing read.