When Jules Jacobson, the heroine of Meg Wolitzer’s exceptional novel The Interestings meets Ethan Figman and Ash Wolf, the people who will become her life-long best friends, during a summer at a camp called Spirit-In-The-Woods, they give her access to an in-crowd, to New York, and within New York itself to a kind of wealth wholly unfamiliar to her in the suburbs. But their friendship poses an ongoing dilemma: what ethical compromises is Jules willing to make in order to stay comfortably within their charmed circle? And how well can she manage the jealousy she feels as Ethan’s astonishing talents as an animator make him remarkably wealthy, changing his personal style, and giving Ash, who will become his wife, support to pursue her artistic talents, while Jules ends up as a social worker? The real concern of the book though is with currency, be it economic, artistic, or the tricky, unpredictable exchange of personal relationships. Wolitzer offers up a complex, thoughtful analysis of the difficulties of understanding your own worth.
The first question is raised by an event that fractures the larger group that Jules, Ethan, and Ash are a part of: Cathy, their friend, accuses Ash’s brother Goodman, who she’d once dated, of raping her on New Year’s Eve. As the price of remaining close to Ash, and to Ash’s family, Jules is asked first to presume that Goodman is innocent, even though Cathy is her friend to, then to approach Cathy in the hopes of convincing her with withdraw the charges, and after Goodman flees the country to avoid prosecution, to keep secret from everyone that Ash’s family remains in touch with him. At each step in the process, Jules is aware of the compromises that she is making. “Cathy had been strong and believable in the coffee shop, but Jules couldn’t hold on to her words,” Wolitzer writes of how Jules feels after her last meeting with Cathy, who will become her former friend. “If she held on to them, if she remembered them and completely absorbed them, then she might not have still been lingering around the Labyrinth.” While The Interestings never conclusively determines what happened between Goodman and Cathy, it does an excellent job of explaining how the people close to the accuser and accused in such cases decide what they will believe.
And Wolitzer does an excellent job of sketching how Jules’ decision to side with Ash and her family against Cathy, and against Ethan, from whom that secret is kept even for years after he marries Ash, is a failure of the first thing that drew Jules to the group of friends in the first place. When she returns from her first summer at Spirit-In-The-Woods, “Jules wondered whether the summer had made her bigger hearted or just meaner…Jules was neither bigger hearted now, nor meaner, she decided. She had gone away as Julie and was returning as Jules, a person who was discerning.” But after that New Year’s Eve, Jules fails to apply the same discernment to Ash and Goodman that she applies to her mother and sister, whose transgressions are matters of class and aesthetics, rather than criminal offenses. Later, after he has learned Ash’s secret, Ethan muses to Jules that “Ash is this big feminist director, and yet she never seriously considered Cathy Kiplinger’s version of what happened with Goodman. And that was never a contradiction for her. Her brother was separate, and he was in a category all his own.”
The sophistication that the Interestings claim turns out to have rather dramatic limits, with bad results for both the characters’ souls and for their art. One of the bases of Ethan and Jules long-running and exceptionally powerful friendship turns out to be her ability to be honest–and discerning–after a point at which he’s become so powerful that no one else will do anything but encourage him. When he makes an animated film using beavers as a metaphor for child labor, “It received bad reviews and did poorly, as Jules had warned him it would when he first told her he was thinking of trying to develop it as an idea. ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ she’d said. ‘It just sort of sounds unappealing and preachy, Ethan. Just stick to the actual cause. You don’t have to make it into a cartoon.'” Jules isn’t wrong that discernment is valuable, but The Interestings is an important illustration that it can do harm when applied in situations where distinctions, like taste in art, aren’t actually terrible meaningful, and when withheld in situations that might force important but painful reckonings.
Through less traumatic circumstances, but rather the slow passage of time, Jules also comes to understand that the qualities and trappings she first admired in her camp friends, be it wealth or the possession of opinions about Günter Grass and Anaïs Nin, are not the only ways to be an interesting person, and that interestingness is not the only way to be worthy. Much of these realizations are driven by a series of arguments between Jules and her husband Dennis, a sonogram technician who comes from a more modest class background than many of Jules’ friends, and who suffers from severe depression. While they have a strong, long-lasting marriage, its central conflict is Jules’ jealousy of Ethan and Ash’s accomplishments, and the extent to which success has made them different from her.
Jules comes as close as she possibly can to a resolution of these feelings when she and Dennis take a job running Spirit-In-The-Woods for a summer, and Jules realizes that simply being there doesn’t make her feel the same way she did when she was young. “The Wunderlichs [the couple who ran the camp previously] were preservationists, not artists,” Jules realizes. “Jules had wanted to be an artist. The difference could be felt here now in the darkness of the theater, sitting on one of the hard wooden benches among the campers and the counselors, watching the dynamic Kit Campbell onstage, a girl who in everyday life was punked out in combat boots and low-riding shorts, but onstage was regal in the bolt of material that had been fashioned into a gown just for her.” And while Jules is right that money absolutely makes the difference in being able to pursue art–“Ash was talented, but not all that talented. This was the thing that no one had said, not once,” Jules reflects. “But of course it was fortunate that Ash didn’t have to worry about money while trying to think about art. Her wealthy childhood had given her a head start, and now Ethan had picked up where her childhood had left off.”–money isn’t an actual replacement for talent.
Furious that Jules has asked them to uproot their lives to try running the camp and discovered that she doesn’t get what she wanted from it, Dennis asks her a fundamental question. “Jesus, is it the most essential thing there is?” he wants to know. “Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do— kill themselves? Is that what I should do? I’m an ultrasound technician, and for about a minute I was the director of a summer camp. I’m a quick study. I learn skills and I read up on things to compensate for my absolute lack of specialness.” It’s a bruising analysis that gets at a whole range of heirarchies. There’s the value of “talent” in a family like Ash’s that demands their children be not just functional but exceptional, relative to its value in Jules’ childhood home, where her ambitions mostly serve as judgement on her mother’s quiet, decent, brave life. There’s the luxury of having the money to turn moderate talent into sustainable success juxtaposed against the need to find a way to support yourself if your talent isn’t incandescent enough to transcend class. And there’s the question of why Ash’s parents, who continue to support their deeply troubled son and impose a terrible secret on their daughter and her best friend, are seen as more valuable or attractive than Jules’ widowed, lower-middle-class mother.
And the climax of the novel comes when Jules realizes why she’s been in Ethan’s life so long–and really, the reason she loves Dennis so much. While her early turn as a wisecracker and a comic actress didn’t translate into a career as an artist, her sense that the group was worth being loyal to and the values it espoused were important have been of long-lasting value. Ethan may have been able to buy Jules and Dennis an apartment, but she could tell him what he needed to do to save his marriage to Ash, that his movie was bad, that his relationship with his autistic son might be extremely difficult, but that he could find a way to be decent within his own constraints. And if Ash was glamorous and beautiful, and her parents’ apartment an oasis in the city, Ash still needed Jules to side with her in the matter of Goodman and Cathy, to support her during her son’s autism diagnosis, and to convince her husband to confess his greatest transgressions to Ash so their marriage can heal. If friendship is an economy, and some of the participants in it are wealthy, it’s easy to forget that money isn’t the only currency.
“You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation,” Jules realizes, finally understanding that her position in the group has never really been as subordinate as she imagined. “You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting. Anyway, she knew, the definition could change; it had changed, for her.”