There’s a point near the end of Meg Wolitzer’s ambitious, heartbreaking new novel The Interestings where one of the main characters, a formerly aspiring actress who turned to a life of social work after realizing her limitations, is asked “What if it doesn’t work out? What if you find out that you’re bad at it??” The question actually made me gasp, even though it was completely within the bounds of interaction; it occurs after Jules Jacobson, a social worker, tells a soon-to-be-former patient that she’s leaving her practice to go run a summer camp. Not just any summer camp, either—it’s the camp where, as a teenager, she found a small galaxy of North Stars off which to gauge her ambitions.
Those other campers—five of them, two men, three women—brought Jules into their self-selected clique, which they referred to as “The Interestings.” They are all city dwellers; Jules is the outsider, a scholarship kid from the suburbs who was sent to the camp, ensconced in the Massachussetts woods, after her father passed away and her mother sank into depression. For Jules, the experience is so transformative that it even changed her name; when she left Underhill, the mid-island suburb, she was known as Julie. Rechristening herself—or, rather, being rechristened by Ash Wolf, the gorgeous alpha female of the bunch—was a way out of her previously mundane existence, fate plucking her out of becoming her mother and putting her on the path toward a different type of success.
But what is “success,” anyway? A Dewey Decimal point’s worth of material has been written lately about the concept of Having It All, and The Interestings provides an effective riposte to each one of them with its six focal characters, each of whom enjoys some sort of envious position as their lives unfold. [...]