Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is it Better to Have a Book's Experiences be Alien to You or Feel Like You Might Have Lived Them? and Other Ponderings as We Ready Ourselves for Tonight's Event with Meg Wolitzer, Author of "The Interestings."

Tonight (April 24) we are hosting Meg Wolitzer for her first visit to Boswell. I've got lots of links to both reviews and interviews at the bottom of this post.  We're also discussing The Interestings for our current in-store lit group selection. It was originally scheduled for Monday, May 5, 7 pm, but now we're hosting Garrison Keillor at the same time at the UWM Ballroom (tickets available here) so I cannot attend. I'm offering the group two options--a short meeting at 6 pm (sans author this time) tonight or by all means, meet up at the store on May 5.

My other concern is that I hoped to do my "what did the book club think?" post before the event, but now I realize that logistically this did not work out exactly right. Next time I might do what we did with Geraldine Brooks, where the book club read an earlier title. But for this time, we'll have too posts, this one a pre-event, and another that is the traditional post-discussion post.

I should note there are some minor spoilers in the middle section of this post.  If you want to avoid them, skip to the next break. It's nothing you wouldn't have read in a review, but still. And then there are some of you that read the end of the book first. For you, you should have no fear at all.


One of the highest compliments you can pay to an author is to say that after you finished their novel, you really felt like you knew the characters. In this case, I really identify. I was born two years after the characters in the new novel, The Interestings, though being on the tail end of New York City's grade-skipping program, many of my friends were a year older in high school.

I flirted with various art forms. I tried out for several of our high school theater productions, sometimes winning bit parts. I played flute in the orchestra. I took various studio art courses, though I always thought my best work was an oil painting of Wilma Flintstone. I might have made all-borough orchestra, but I knew I wasn't that good. And by third year of the theater productions, I not only wasn't a featured player, I wasn't any player of all. I was in charge of sound effects.

The sad truth was, I didn't really have enough talent or drive to go far, so I stuck to my studies. Now some might say that my academic achievements didn't take me anywhere in particular either, though you'd have to admit that at least it was a longer ride. I knew kids who had that drive; we rode the same feeder bus on summer mornings to camp. I went off to the Y(MHA) for a day of sports and crafts, while the artsy kids went to Usdan, the day-only version of Spirit in the Woods, the sleepaway arts camp that figures large in  the story.

But I had friends with enough talent to keep trying. They tried out for shows, and got parts. They toured their bands. They wrote books. Interestingly enough, some people I knew made it, but they were never the people I kept in touch with. Most of the ones who stayed my friends wound up taking more traditional career paths. Was that coincidence, my doing, or theirs?

One of my closest friends had close parallels to Jules Jacobson of the novel. She continued to try out for shows thorugh her twenties. I even saw her in a few stage productions. But she wound up in the school system, first teaching and then coaching and advising. She is one of two of my friends who live on the Upper West Side with their families, part of the diminishing middle class of Manhattan, surrounded by untold wealth. I sometimes wonder how they can handle the disparity. What do you do when your kids ask you why you don't have a summer house?

If there was an Ethan or Ash in my crowd, I long lost touch with them.

So that was one reason why I particularly enjoyed reading The Interestings, but certainly wasn't the only reason I got lost in this broad canvas, absorbing novel. Wolitzer captures the barriers that come between both couples and friends, the truths we withold, the envy that builds up. There are two successes, the most organic being Ethan Figman's "Figland", a hit cartoon series that seems like a cross between The Simpsons and Adventure Time. And then there is his wife's Ash's nonprofit theater company. Her success is more traditional, less pop culture-y, but it's clear that without the family's money, she never would have been able to hold out through the money-bleeding years.

There's also a mental health subtheme going on through The Interestings. Jules' husband Dennis struggles with depression, while Ash's son is on the spectrum. And Goodman? There's clearly something wrong with him, though it's undiagnosed, in an old-school way.

There's lots more to talk about, but I'll wait till after our event. I'm also excited to hear what the group says. No matter how many reviews and interviews I ponder, our discussions always lead to ideas about the discussed title that weren't raised elsewhere.


I've been reading Meg Wolitzer on and off for a long time. She's had great reviews before, but I don't think anything has matched the impact of her newest. I read This is Your Life back when it was called This is My Life. They changed the book's name for a movie (with Julie Kavner, speaking of The Simpsons) and though the film has not really endured, the new title stuck.

I think Wolitzer set the ground rules for contmplating her new novel in her New York Times essay, The Second Shelf. It was an essay that really got people talking, and I still look at a book wondering what the cover treatment would be the genders were reversed.

Beth Kephart in the Chicago Tribune calls the book a "a supremely engrossing, deeply knowing, genius-level enterprise."

Here's the Liesl Schillinger review in The New York Times Book Review.

Suzanne Koven reviews Wolitzer in The Boston Globe.

Here's Terry Gross interviewing Meg Wolitzer on Fresh Air.

The novel gets an A from Entertainment Weekly, as reviewed by Melissa Maerz.

No comments: