Coming of age

Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not certain what 44 looks like, other than what I’m presented with in the mirror each morning. The Social Security Life Expectancy calculator informs me that I’ve lived half my anticipated span. The tired maxim encourages me not to think of the years in my life, but the life in my years.

Now that I’m marooned in middle age for a spell, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the life in the years ahead of and behind me. Have I achieved something of value in my work, my relationships? Is what I do enough to sustain me intellectually and emotionally for the next forty-four years? Do I measure up to my peers? Am I happy? Am I interesting? This quest for fulfillment and self-actualization is the premise of Meg Wolitzer’s sprawling, cracking good novel The Interestings.

In the summer of ’74, Julie Jacobson, a middle class average achiever from a nondescript upstate New York town, earns a spot at an exclusive arts camp in New England. She is selected to enter the inner circle of the five coolest kids in camp, each a precocious, urbane specimen bred in the hipness of New York City. Julie becomes Jules and we follow her and those five other teenagers for the next thirty years.

Jules is obsessed with the self-dubbed The Interestings--the talented and/or privileged people to whom she devotes so much emotional energy. The cult of personalities made me squeamish at times—I wanted her to walk away from the past and create a life of her own. But her devotion to their supposed ideal reveals one of the truths of human nature—we hang onto the golden coming-of-age memories, hoping those few perfect moments of childhood will carry us through the disappointment of growing up.

It took me a long time to track on the Jules Vibe. I never quite believed in her intimate friendship with Ash Wolf, the faerie child around whose axis the group of friends spins. Nor did I fully embrace Ethan’s constancy of passion for her. She just wasn’t, ironically, that interesting. Even her physical presence remained shadowy for me. The others I could picture perfectly—lumbering, awkward Ethan; delicate, perfectly formed Ash; bombshell Cathy; finely etched, beautiful Jonah with his sweep of long, dark hair; golden God turned bloated addict Goodman. But Jules, other than her unruly hair, remained indistinct.

Yet, as she matured, growing into her role as friend, counselor, wife and mother, Jules begins to take shape. She became the character I most wanted to get stuck in the middle of a book with. Which is the genius of Wolitzer’s narrative—the novel’s most enigmatic character becomes its core strength.

Not that you’ll get stuck in this book. Despite its length and scope, The Interestings impels the reader with sparkling dialogue and description. I did tread water with some lengthy expository and flashback episodes, but it easily becomes one of those books you just can’t set down.

If you say you don’t compare your external successes and failures (e.g. material possessions, presumed income, job, weight, health, marital status, kids’ college admissions, job prospects) with your circle of peers, I say “more power to you.” Forgive me if I don’t believe you. Meg Wolitzer probably wouldn’t believe you, either. It’s what we do, we flawed, insecure, fickle humans. We’re hard-wired to want what we ain’t got.

But we can learn to accept what we’ve been given. Do The Interestings? Read and find out.

I’m five years too young to fall within the brackets of the Baby Boomer generation (cut-off birth year is 1964), and ten years younger than the main characters of The Interestings, but I can relate many of the novel’s cultural reference points and Jules Jacobson’s feeling that she just missed out on the badge of cultural honor bestowed those who came of age in the late ’60s.

I’ve walked away from traditional success a few times, always choosing the interesting over expected. Perhaps because I fear the fall from lofty heights will be harder to recover from than the soft bounce of relative obscurity. Perhaps I’m just lazy. Here’s to the second half of the journey.

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Book Review: Flora by Gail Godwin

FloraFlora by Gail Godwin My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible - Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora's behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.

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Book Review: Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Look. I don't live in a vacuum. I know this is one of the most talked about books of the summer. Big displays in bookstores, frequent author appearances on my favorite public radio station cultural programming, reviews in my newspapers and journals of choice (that I didn't read - by the way - so I wouldn't spoil my experience). So hard I did try to consider this book on its own merits, without expectations. But I'm human. Given the hype, I'm gonna hope for a miracle.

Okay, maybe not a miracle. But something really extraordinary. Which this isn't. I'm so confused.

In case you DO live in a vacuum, The Age of Miracles, the debut of novelist Karen Thompson Walker, is set in suburban California right about now. The earth's rotation is inexplicably slowing, leading to hours of night, hours of bright day, throwing the universe out of temporal, circadian, climactic whack. Gravity is affected, birds cannot fly, fish cannot swim. Crops fail, cults flourish, communities collapse. But soccer practice goes on.

It's a brilliant premise and Thompson Walker does a superb job of presenting this disaster and its unfolding consequences without miring the book in scientific explanations. I don't need to know why the slowing is happening; I'm ready to believe that our destruction of the planet can extend into our solar system. I am, therefore, disappointed by the author's heavy-handed foreshadowing. Frequent sentences with "It was the last time we..." or "We never...again..." steal the immediacy of the disaster.

Now that I've read several published reviews, let me dispel the widespread notion this story is told from the point of view of an 11-year old narrator, Julia. No. It isn't. It's told by 20-something Julia, looking back on the first year when the earth's rotation decelerated. Which changes everything this book is suggested to be - a coming of age story, a unique perspective of a girl as the world begins a slow collapse around her. That misperception is not the author's fault. But by choosing to tell the story from many years' distance, Karen Thompson Walker does present the reader with an unreliable narrator. Are we expected to trust Julia's memory of how her limited community - her neighborhood, her school, her family - reacted to "the slowing"? Even more to the point, because this is a book far more concerned with human nature than its sci-fi premise would suggest, are we to trust older Julia's recounting of the relationships as she observed and participated in them? Had the author truly wanted us to live in Julia's moment, she would have let the little girl speak in her own voice, not via the sophisticated redaction presented by her adult self.

I can't quite figure out if this is meant to be Young Adult fiction. If 11-year old Julia were truly the narrator, I'd say a definitive "Yes". But Julia's voice and her perceptions don't ring true in so young a girl. Given her neighborhood, her home life - it doesn't compute that she was as worldly-wise as her 20-something self portrays her. Yet, the emotional dimensions of this novel are too simplistic for adult literary fiction. It's all so muddled.

There is some extraordinary writing here.

Chapter One, Page 1

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big- rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.

These people were accustomed to waiting out the night. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.

I mean, Holy Cow. But this promises a tension and a sense of dread that aren't sustained. There are too many parts that drone and drag, as minutes are added to the Earth's rotation and Julia's mother adds jars of peanut butter to the stash under the bed.

In the end, this is good entertainment. I can give it a pretty solid (how's that for waffling?) three stars, because I am taken by the dystopian rendering of a world grinding to a halt. But the characters feel dim and insubstantial to me, like memories of a summer fling.

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