Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What did The Book Club Think About Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings"?

One of the crazy things about writing up a book club discussion when we've hosted the author, is that I've already been writing and writing and writing about the book. Whereas normally the book and author seem really fresh to me, even when it's a book we sold in hardcover, in this case I'm thinking, does anyone really want me to talk more about Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings?

Of course you do! For one thing, I need to say that Wolitzer was as wonderful a reader and speaker as I promised. One of our FOBs (Friends of Boswell) came up afterwards and said to me, "Do you think I could call her up and go to lunch? I want to be her best friend." I suspect there is a long waiting list for that position.

Now I already know from the reviews that The Interestings had amazingly good reviews, but they were not unanimously so, amd so I almost didn't know what to expect when our small group met before Wolitzer's appearance. It was smaller than normal because I had to adjust the meeting time because we're now hosting Garrison Keillor at the normal book club event time. But it turned out everyone attending was quite positive about The Interestings, and that was without Wolitzer dropping in to answer questions, and thus, forcing us to be on our best behavior.

L. loved the book. She said it might have been the best thing she's read since she joined the group. The characters were so human.

C. had bought it and read it in hardcover. She'd expected it to be more lightweight than it actually was. At first she thought she'd do a little skimming, and then wound up rereading the whole book. She particularly liked the way Wolitzer wove social issues into the story.

J. had read The Ten Year Nap back when she had friends going through the same issue. She noted that Wolitzer really has great insights into people--the idea that friends on equal footing can diverge in terms of social and financial success, and how that can create a low-level envy seemed really true to life. My sister's husband is a screen writer and his close friend developed ***. (I'm not going to say the show because that more clearly points to who we're talking about, but I'll just say it was a huge hit that is very heavily syndicated.

One thing S. observed is that even though the characters had faults aplenty, there was nobody in The Interestings that she really disliked. She understood them. She also liked the way Wolitzer wove mental health issues into the story, form the low-level despress, to the child on the Spectrum, to the (spoiler, of a sort) undiagnosed ADD.

We talked a bit about some of the characters. What was Jonah's purpose in the novel? Why did Cathy make a reappearance all those years later? How does guilt play a role in the story? And yes, we dared to approach it, though I kept my distance--what actually happened between Goodman and Cathy. I stayed out of that.

In addition to having a discussion about envy, we also talked about artistic potential and achievement. How did money drive artistic success? And how has technology changed the way people think about art and artists (and by this I mean all creatives, not just visual artists).

One attendee brought up how 9-11 always has a presence in New York novels, but in this story, it's less of a major player than it has been in novels written closer to the event. We talked about how both time and geography function to change a tragic event's importance. This was one of several points where The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, was discussed.

And finally, we discussed the unfinished business of childhood love. This led to stories of high school reunions and rekindled love affairs.

So at Gabrielle Zevin's appearance on Monday, I ran into one of our other regulars, who was planning to come, only to have her friend get sick, changing plans.

So the amusing thing was that I asked her what she thought of Wolitzer's book and she had a completely different take than any of us did, helping my theory that a book discussion can swerve in different directions with just a small change in participants.

Here's a (UK) Guardian profile by Emma Brockes that I haven't yet before linked to. It's interesting in that it's looking at America from the outside. An excerpt: "The Interestings, Wolitzer's ninth novel, is more ambitious than any she has written so far, tracking a group of friends from the moment they meet, at summer camp, up through the decades of their lives. It has done very well in the US, so that at 54, Wolitzer has become, as a friend joked to her recently, 'a 30-year overnight success.' The novel deserves acclaim, but it is a surprising hit, perhaps, given its subject matter and the downbeat nature of the heroine. It is a novel about envy, but not in the grand sense. Rather, it unpicks the insidious resentment that grows between friends who start out in the same place and whose fortunes diverge. 'Nobody tells you how long you should keep doing something,' she writes of the least successful in the circle, 'before you give up forever.'"

Oh, and this is a fascinating piece in The New Yorker. I was fascinated how she was inspired a bit by Michael Apted's Seven Up film series. You must see the writer doodle!

Monday, June 2, 7 pm: a discussion of Bill Cheng's Southern Cross the Dog, a first novel that got a lot of buzz last year, for being an authentically written Mississippi novel written by a first generation Chinese immigrant living in Queens.

Monday, July 7, 7 pm: a discussion of Dara Horn's A Guide for the Perplexed, a novel that entwines "stories from Genesis, medieval philosophy, and the digital frontier."

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