The Drama of the Gifted (And the Ordinary)
By Neely Kennedy
In the May Ladies’ Home Journal Book Club selection, The Interestings, four time novelist Meg Woltizer tells a coming-of-age story filled with irreverence and self-aware humor . “The Interestings” are a clique of six teens from New York who meet in 1974 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a sleepaway art camp, where they form relationships that last through middle-age.
When she is renamed “Jules” after what she believes to be a miraculous acceptance into the in-crowd, the ordinary and shy Julie feels special for the first time. But while during their youth it seems that each of the friends possess promising talents, as the story moves into adulthood it turns out that not all of “The Interestings” are created equal. Though good at her job as a therapist and married to a loving albeit ordinary husband, Dennis, problems in Jules’s marriage are complicated by her obsession with comparing their lives to that of her friends.
Below are descriptive summaries of the characters’ “special gifts” while at summer camp in 1974 versus their actual outcomes once they leave the idealized bubble of Spirit-in-the Woods for life in the real world.
Jules: A mediocre comedic talent who finds marginal meaning as a therapist but never achieves notable success with regard to money or fame.
“And then there was the last of Ethan’s friends, who hadn’t been good enough at being funny onstage and had had to switch to another field, developing a skill more than an art. Jules’s clients apparently loved her; they were always bringing her gifts, and they wrote her moving letters after they no longer came to see her. But still Jules was disappointed in how she had ended up.”
Ethan: An exceptionally gifted cartoonist who achieves great wealth and fame but, ironically, has a son whose “special needs” he finds difficult to bear.
“Though he hadn’t been born into privilege, he too had been helped up the ladder over time, though the talent he possessed was squarely his. It had existed before the ladder ever appeared. But he didn’t even feel that he could take credit for his own talent, because he’d been born with it, and had simply discovered it while drawing one day, just the way Wally Figman had discovered that little planet, Figland, in a shoe box.”
Jonah: A handsome and quiet boy living in the shadow of his mother’s folk musician fame who becomes successful yet unfilled as an engineer, after denying himself a life as a musician.
“It was impossible to know , but he might have gone far as a musician, especially along with that group he’d been in at MIT, Seymour Glass, who were actually still performing sometimes thirty years later. He’d had a real talent, but what was talent without confidence, self-possession, ‘ownership,’ as people said, pompously but maybe accurately.”
Cathy: A talented dancer, doomed not to realize her talent because of her overly voluptuous figure, who instead becomes a powerful business woman.
“Ethan and Ash had recently heard from Jules, who’d heard from Nancy Mangiari, that Cathy Kiplinger had gotten an MBA from Stanford and was starting work in ‘capital markets,’ whatever that meant. It didn’t make sense to Ethan that someone so talented and dancerly could end up sitting in a swivel chair all day, reading spreadsheets about . . . capital markets.”
Ash: The privileged but sweet best friend of Jules, who makes fairly well received feminist off-Broadway productions, as predicted.
“Ash kept directing serious and usually feminist though somewhat uninspired plays, receiving respectful reviews from critics who were impressed by her modest but sly touch, especially in contrast with the very public, hyperkinetic work of her high-profile husband. She appeared on panels called “Women in Theater,” though she resented the fact that people thought such panels were still interesting or necessary.”
Goodman: The devilishly charming and sexy brother of Ash, whose notions of becoming an architect are never realized because of his undisciplined and volatile nature.
“Goodman read everything his sister sent, and dutifully mixed the protein powder into his skier and swallowed his mother’s vitamins, and he found construction jobs when he could— the job helping out in that architect’s office hadn’t worked out—though he had back problems now and was sometimes incapacitated for weeks. He smoked pot most evenings and some mornings, and he retained an intermittent interest in cocaine, requiring another stay in rehab.”
Book Club Bonus: Have a round-robin discussion about when you decided to either pursue your “natural talent” as a career, resigned to pursue it only as a hobby, or shelved it altogether as an unattainable dream of childhood. Any regrets? How does that affect your perception of being “successful” in your life?
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