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Busting Out: Allison Pearson on Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

The InterestingsThe Interestings
Meg Wolitzer (Chatto & Windus)
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If Meg 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 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.

But Wolitzer remained in the pastel ghetto of women’s fiction. True, she enjoyed some succès d’estime, but never the kind that comes with magazine profiles and Pulitzers. Then something miraculous happened. Writing about families and marriage and kids was suddenly worthwhile. When a woman wrote about that stuff it was women’s fiction; when a guy like Jonathan Franzen 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.

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 attempt to yoke the minutiae of domestic life to the bigger picture of politics. 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 a group formed in 1974 by six self-important teenagers at a summer camp for artistic children. There is Ethan, a plain, awkward boy with a gift for animation who falls for the equally awkward, poodle-permed Julie, a suburban “nonentity” promoted to Jules among her cool new group. Jules is the heroine of The Interestings. 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, but they are nature’s aristocrats, blessed with wonderful 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.

I love Wolitzer’s 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.

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.

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.

- Allison Pearson @allisonpearson, The Daily Telegraph

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