Sly wit and verbal brio in this great feminist novel
Chatto & Windus, €24.50
There are certain authors whose new book you look forward to as though you were about to catch up on news from an old friend. And there are authors whose new book you fall on greedily because you know it will be tartly delicious and satisfy a hunger you didn't know you had till you read them for the first time.
For me, Meg Wolitzer has long been in both of those categories. If Wolitzer inspires a particular devotion in her readers, it is not unconnected to the fact that we believe her to belong to that evergreen literary subgroup: the Unjustly Neglected Female Novelist. Hilary Mantel was in that stoic, seething club until she became an overnight sensation after decades of producing wondrous, ingenious novels which made her famous male contemporaries look like cloth-eared traffic wardens.
I was sure that Wolitzer's The Wife (2004), the best-ever portrait of a spouse subjugating her talents to those of her "genius" husband, would catapult her to the first rank. I thought the same about The Position (2005), a nimble tragicomedy about four children who discover that their parents are the co-authors of a celebrated Sixties sex manual. The Position was ploughing the same rich field as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, only with the added benefit of laughter.
While the Jonathans and the Jeffreys were praised for writing the Great American Novel, Wolitzer remained in the pastel ghetto of women's fiction. True, she enjoyed some succes d'estime (The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling), but never the kind that comes with magazine profiles and Pulitzers. Then something miraculous happened. The Jonathans and the Jeffreys decided that writing about families and marriage and kids was worthwhile. When a woman wrote about that stuff it was women's fiction; when a guy wrote about it – Shazam! – it was literature. The fact that Franzen's Freedom was an oddly uneven novel, with an irritatingly implausible mother at its heart, didn't lead to bad reviews. Men were now writing "women's fiction" so it must be accorded respect, even if (whisper it low) they weren't always that good at being girls.
There is no doubt that Meg Wolitzer's ninth novel, The Interestings, is the beneficiary of this new transgender fictional exchange. There is an echo of The Corrections in the title's definite article and in the strenuous (sometimes overly strenuous) attempt to yoke the minutiae of domestic life to the bigger picture of politics and world events. You can almost hear Wolitzer saying through gritted teeth: "OK, you think women write small? Well, here's a big book to chew on, Buster!" The Interestings is what Americans call a "breakout" book. After 30 years labouring in the word vineyard, Wolitzer is now praised for her "ambition" and rewarded with the attention and bestseller-dom she has long deserved. A neat irony, as it happens, because Jules Jacobson, the heroine of The
Interestings, is eaten up by envy of her friends' success and wonders a lot about what happens to youthful promise over time. The Interestings is a group formed in 1974 by six self-important teenagers at a summer camp for artistic children. There is Ethan Figman, a plain, awkward boy with a gift for animation who falls for the equally awkward, poodle-permed Julie, a suburban "nonentity" rapidly promoted to Jules among her cool new group. There is lovely Jonah, the son of a famous female folk-singer, who is musical himself but has had his gift milked and soured by a creepy, burnt-out banjo player. Cathy, a wonderful dancer, has her gift encumbered by large breasts and a needy disposition. The group's de facto king and queen are Goodman and Ash Wolf. The brother and sister aren't more talented than the other Interestings – on the contrary – but they are nature's aristocrats, blessed with looks and a rich, cultivated family life in a splendid New York apartment.
The summer camp has more than a touch of A Midsummer Night's Dream; it casts a spell on Jules and the rest in a forest before they are "fully grown into their thicker, finalised adult selves". As in Shakespeare's comedy, the couples get muddled up, so ugly Ethan ends up married to Titania (Ash) instead of Jules, who is his match in wit and wanting.
The novel cuts in and out of these multiple lives across the succeeding decades and Wolitzer handles this terrifically well. Her creation of the enduring relationship between the delicate, sophisticated Ash and the blotchy, funny Jules is remarkable because it manages to convince you how much the women love each other, even though Jules is often flayed and humiliated by her friend's beauty, an unearned gift which gives Ash a free pass to life's top table.
Wolitzer is revisiting some of the characters and themes that first appeared in her fourth novel, Surrender, Dorothy. That book also focused on the contrasting fortunes of a group of friends who returned each summer to the same seaside house, drawn by nostalgia for the selves they once were. Back then, Wolitzer was in the early stages of her hypothesis about success and what it means to live a good life, which are easily confused but not the same thing at all. Fame is the rogue chemical element in the equation which can make plain people desirable, and background and connections will trump the originality of a suburban nonentity, unless he or she gets very lucky.
The Interestings is full of Wolitzer's trademark pleasures. I love her fearlessness in tackling everything from the difficulty of getting a penis inside you to the sheer horror occasioned by your best friend's new walk-in refrigerator.
She has a sly wit and verbal brio which can even make clinical depression entertaining, although it's fair to say some readers may feel they have better things to worry about than the tribulations of New York's navel-gazing intelligentsia.
Above all, though, this is a great feminist novel. When playwright Ash has received yet another review mentioning both her gender and her husband, she exclaims: "What does a woman have to do to be seen as a serious person?"
"Be a man, I guess," comes the reply.
We can glimpse the novelist breaking cover there for a second. Is Wolitzer angry that it took the blessing of the Jonathans and Jeffreys to make the excellent novels about families and friendship she has been writing since she was young be taken seriously?
Like Jane Austen, another writer of "women's fiction", Meg Wolitzer is a supreme ironist. If anyone can find the bittersweet humour in an elevation to the Big Boys' League, it's her. Unjustly Neglected Female Novelist?
Not any more, Buster.