Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013)

I'm going to strenuously avoid playing off the title  and try not to write anything like "The Interestings was anything but" or "The Chinese have a saying that you may be cursed to live in interesting times.  That curse could apply to the reading of this book."  Actually, I am just being clever and witty. I wish I had hated this book enough to drop a bon mot like that.  I actually felt this way about the book:  How can a book I felt so "meh" about pretty much all the way through make me tear up at the end? How did you do this, Meg Wolitzer, how?  Does that make it a good book?  Even - I'm going to choke on this like a piece of dry roast beef - a great book?  No.  I refuse to put into writing that The Interestings was a great book.  But I will say it's a strong book and was enjoyable.  At no point did I want to scream in painful disgust (disgusted pain?) and throw it out the nearest window.  There was some bullshitty stuff in the book though.  There is this stupid, stupid scene where two gays guys are starting to have sex at the beginning of the AIDs crisis, and they stop to call the AIDs hotline.  Maybe Meg Wolitzer based this on something that really happened, I dunno.  All I know is that it felt stupid, like no one would ever do that, and if they really did, it was stupid.  The scene where these two gay guys break up felt stilted too.  

All the characters reminded me of Judy Blume characters.  As if Judy Blume had written the book about her characters - Peter, Fudge, Sheila the Great, that kid who uses the binoculars to watch the girl across the street taking off her clothes, Are You There God It's Me Margaret, Freckle Juice - they are all Judy Blume characters, all grown up, doing pot and fucking (there is a lot of fucking in the book, graphically but really sort of unsexy) and raping someone and having autistic kids and strokes and dying.  And living in New York City, because that's what Judy Blume characters do.   

(I think my powers of literary criticism are very, very limited.  Really smart people, you know the ones at cocktail parties in fabulous clothes exchanging witticisms (and perhaps having to solve a murder later), probably are able to compare books to Nabakov or David Foster Wallace or that dude who wrote The Corrections.  I'm always stuck comparing literary fiction to Star Trek and Planet of the Apes and books I read as a kid.)

If Wolitzer's characters are mostly unlikable (that whole "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"), and her plot is really sort of nonexistent (does this harken back to the whole "The novel is dead" thing?  Again, I'm not smart enough to know), I think it's her writing that's exquisite.  She has some of the most noticeably beautiful and well written (and funny!) sentences I think I've ever read.  I started to really notice them about half way through the book - I wish I'd looked at them more carefully at the beginning, but I was engaged in trying to 1) like the characters and 2) find a plot.

There's this one.  Jules and Ash are shopping for dildos at a "legendary sex emporium" in New York City (because no other place exists, natch). 

 ""May I help you?" asked a woman who had just stepped out of a line drawing from Our Bodies, Ourselves."

or this one.  After Dennis and Jules have been arguing about their richer friends while they did the dishes.

"He smelled of lemon Dawn, and she probably smelled of whatever chemical was released when you became bitter."

or this one, after Jules asked Ethan what it felt like to "behave rich" --

"He appeared displeased at the question, or at his own answer, as if it had forced him to acknowledge how hi life was turning -- the way a ship of state turns, slow and incremental, with great, violent, unseen convulsions underneath."

It was writing like this, intelligent writing, writing with intent, carefully chosen and crafted, that made the book strong and enjoyable.


The InterestingsThe Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After finishing it, and then reading some reviews, I heard someone in a podcast refer to The Interestings as "pleasant but not tantalizing."  That was my opinion in a nutshell.  I enjoyed it and was interested enough to finish the book, but I wasn't particularly moved by it one way or another.  I know I'm going to sound so lame, but all the characters in the book reminded me of Judy Blume characters.  As if Judy Blume had written the book about her characters - Peter, Fudge, Sheila the Great, that kid who uses the binoculars to watch the girl across the street taking off her clothes, Are You There God It's Me Margaret, Freckle Juice - they are all Judy Blume characters, all grown up, doing pot and fucking (there is a lot of fucking in the book, graphically but really sort of unsexy) and raping someone and having autistic kids and strokes and dying.  And living in New York City, because that's what Judy Blume characters do.  There are some incredible sentences in this book though, you can handpick them like beautiful fruit, and sit them on the table to decorate your home.  Carefully crafted sentences like this one:  "He smelled of lemon Dawn, and she probably smelled of whatever chemical was released when you became bitter."  Really witty and clever.  So probably the book is a helluva lot better than I'm giving it credit for, and I'm just feeling snarky.



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