Upper East Side author Meg Wolizter explores friendship and jealousy in her novel set in NYC
By Beth Mellow
What if your childhood best friend grew up to be way more successful than you are? Would you be able to stay friends or would you let your envy destroy the relationship? It is that exact dynamic that New York Times best-selling author Meg Wolitzer ruminates on in her recently published novel, The Interestings.
Living in Manhattan since she graduated college, and on the Upper East Side for 20 years, Wolitzer has witnessed what happens to friendship when lives progress on different trajectories. She said, "I've definitely seen a lot of this. One of the things people don't tell you is that things change and things won't be even. Everyone starts out in their twenties living in small apartments and eating in cheap Indian restaurants on East 6th street, but eventually some will have it better than others. Money, class, luck, and connections all play a big role in this."
It is this premise that Wolitzer uses as the framework for The Interestings, which begins at an art camp in the 1970s where one of the main characters, Jules, is exposed to a group of New York City teenagers that change her life. Jules, a typical suburban girl with a great sense of humor, meets the beautiful, theatrical Ash and her handsome, but somewhat errant brother Goodman, the quiet guitarist Jonah, and Ethan - homely, but also an incredibly talented artist. The friendships she makes that summer last a lifetime, but things aren't always easy. While Ash and Ethan, who end up married to each other, are able to create careers from their artistic passions (Ash as a theater director and Ethan is the creator of a wildly popular animated series), their friends do not fair as well. Jules, who gives up on her dream of acting to build a solid career as a therapist, enjoys her life and her lovely family, but always feels a bit of smoldering jealousy in her soul for Ethan and Ash's jet-setting life.
Throughout the novel, Wolitzer illustrates how jealousy influences Jules and her relationships in mostly nuanced, but sometimes more apparent ways. At times she feels embarrassed about inviting Ethan and Ash up to her small apartment fearing they will judge the way she lives. She also compares her more rambunctious, less polished daughter to Ash and Ethan's, who is able to write poems as a five-year-old.
Wolitzer explains, "You may feel a kind of quiet envy comparing yourself to the people you love. I wanted to set it into relief by making it fairly extreme. I really believe that if Jules had never met Ash and Ethan, she would have been fairly content with her life."
In addition to exploring the ways in which financial disparateness can impact friendship, The Interestings is also a story of loss, and squandered talent. One character ends up spending his life as a fugitive because of a crime he commits at age seventeen. Another gives up on his profound musical gift after he is unable to emotionally reconcile abuse he suffered as a child.
Similar to how highly her characters value giftedness in the book, Wolitzer believes people often wrongly assume talent is the key to a meaningful life. She said, "I don't think that every one in life needs to find this big talent. I think we put such a huge premium on it. It's more important to find things you really care about."
The Interestings is available online and at major retailers for purchase. Meg Wolitzer is also currently touring and will make an appearance at the New York Society Library on the Upper East Side on May 30th. For further information, visit www.megwolitzter.com.
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