Chasing a BIG life - a review of 'The Interestings' by Meg Wolitzer

Friday 6 March 2020

Have you ever read a book and hated the main character?

Have you ever then realised that the reason you hated the main character is that they are, essentially, the worst possible version of yourself?

Well, that is what happened to me while reading about Jules Jacobson, and her, quite frankly, insufferable friends in Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings." Brace yourself because I'm about to admit some pretty uncomfortable things about myself, in this terrifyingly personal post disguised as a book review.

'The Interestings' follows a group of friends from when they first meet as talented, but pretentious, teenagers at an idyllic arts focussed summer camp, right through to their late fifties.

Jules Jacobson grew up dreaming of a BIG life. A life where she would be celebrated because of her talent, and she could finally throw off the shackles of being a small-town girl, who once got a disastrous perm.

The type of life that would make her feel worthy of her beautiful and interesting friends.

But Jules dreams don't come true.

At least not as far as she is concerned. The way Jules sees it, while her perm may have grown out, not a lot has changed. She is still living in the shadows of her beautiful and interesting friends.

And she does not handle it gracefully.

She is envious, and bitter, and complains about it endlessly. Honestly, it is REALLY hard to like her.

Now hopefully, you've read up to this point and are thinking 'But Stephie, that's NOTHING like you...'

But in all honesty, the similarities at points, are alarming.

Admittedly, I never went to an idyllic American summer camp, but I did grow up acting and performing, and believing that one day I'd have a big life.  My motivations for wanting that BIG life was different. I didn't feel like I lived in the shadows of my friends, because up until I went to uni, I didn't really have enough friends to cast a shadow.

And I wanted that BIG life, not just to escape a small town, but to, I guess... prove people wrong? Or to prove some mean kids wrong? Maybe I just wished my life would take up the space that was currently empty?

Please, please know, I'm squirming while I type this.

The fact is, I never felt like I fit in when I was younger, sometimes I still don't, and I guess I thought having a BIG life would make up for that, retrospectively.

But what do Jules Jacobson or I mean by a BIG life? For me, it meant doing something with my life that wasn't run of the mill. Not necessarily famous but comment-worthy. "Did you hear what Stephie Jessop does now?"

Acting seemed to fit the bill, for Jules and me.

And when I read Jules' acting teacher ask her if she'd ever considered whether the world needed to see her acting? I could hear my own acting teacher from university telling me my face is just "too expressive."

Now, as we all know, I'm ok with not being an actor or a performer. I already came to that conclusion, all by myself, that no, the world does not need to see my "talent." And maybe if Jules had been given the time to come to this conclusion herself, she wouldn't have turned into such an ungrateful whinge.

But she did, and I think if I'm not careful. I could too.

I've been going through a period of feeling incredibly uninspired lately. But more than that, I've also been feeling... distinctively average, and have spent a lot of time wondering, if 14 years old me would be ok with where I am now?

Typing it out now, now that I'm coming out the other end of this period, and now that I've read someone else thinking my thoughts. I know how utterly ridiculous it is to even ask that.

14 year old me would be flipping chuffed.

For a start I have friends. Ok, collectively their shadow might not be huge, but there are enough friends there to offer shelter from a storm. And they've done just that several times.

I do a job I love. It maybe doesn't have the glamour that I imagined there would be, but honestly what job does?

I'm in love, and that person loves me back - even in my darker period, I knew this was one area of my life that was way beyond my teenage dreams (although that came with a slightly guilty feminist feeling to it).

The reason my life doesn't feel BIG is that it is full.

And if I carry on like Jules does, well into her 50s, I'm in danger of missing that.

Ok, I can stop squirming so much now, because the personal part is over... back to the book.

Now you'd be forgiven for thinking I hated this book, but honestly, you couldn't be more wrong. After all, it takes a pretty fantastic book to give you a self-realisation of this magnitude.

Wolitzer has a knack for meandering into the minutiae. For wandering off the path while sticking to the journey. Reading 'The Interestings' is like living their life with them. You see the importance of the tiniest detail, and every character, no matter how fleeting their appearance may be, feels real. Even when you don't like a character you understand them, you see where they're coming from, and can see why they end up where they do.

Even now, a week after I finished reading this book, I'm thinking about those characters, in the way that you occasionally find yourself wondering 'Whatever became of...?'

It's powerful writing, even if at times, the story is subtle. I will say that if you're someone who prefers novels that are plot-driven rather than character-driven, then this might not be for you, but if like me, what you like to read about is people, then I can't recommend this book highly enough.

And I'm not just saying that because I want to know if I'm a Jules, which 'Interesting' are you? x

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