Thursday, January 2, 2014

Life Changing Summer Camp

While reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer I found myself constantly torn between wanting it to go on forever, and wanting to know what would happen next.  The adjective that is coming to mind is "lovely", but that sounds so unlike me.  Really though, The Interestings is a lovely, lovely book. 

It all started when my daughter's former art teacher suggested that she should go to a sleep away art camp.  I had never even considered that my daughter was qualified to attend an art camp, or that there was one for her, for that matter.  I told her teacher that I was so glad that he had recommended this, and that it could be life changing for her.  I wrote the deposit check, put a stamp on the envelope, and picked up a new book to start reading.  That book was The Interestings.

I went into The Interestings knowing that it was about a group of people who met when they were young and had high expectations, with the reader watching them grow up, and seeing the expectations adjust as plans change and sometimes fail.  I had assumed that it was going to be similar to The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, where the people all meet in college.  Instead, the characters met at a life changing sleep away art camp.  And I was hooked.

Would my daughter's art camp be as important to her as Spirit-in-the-Woods was to these characters?  Would my daughter be more like the charmed and perfect Ash, or like the awkward and lovable but envious Jules?  Could she possibly be like Ethan, the true artistic genius who turns his creativity into a commercial success story?  And then later, please don't let her be like Ethan.  You'll see why.

In The Interestings, Ethan, Jules, Ash and her brother, Goodman, return to Spirit-in-the-Woods, the Utopian camp, each summer.  Their friends also include Jonah, who is the son of a famous folk singer, and Cathy, the talented dancer whose body lets her down.  These kids are driven, and they believe that they are special.  As they graduate from high school and outgrow art camp, they stay in touch as they try to find success in their fields.  Most of the story is set in New York City, where they all live after college.  We first meet the characters in the 1970s, then we progress through New York's aids infected 1980's, the dot com 1990s, and of course, 2001.  The story finally ends when the characters are in their 50s, and some of them are just hitting their stride.

There are some great quotes in this book, beginning with the author's dedication, "For my parents, who sent me there."   Maybe my daughter's art camp will inspire her to write a similar dedication to me someday . . . Note to self:  try to resist setting unrealistic expectations for summer camp.

In fact, although the book is primarily about this group of self obsessed friends, my favorite quotes all involve the family relationships.  The first is Ethan's haiku summary of the book that Ash thinks explains her life, "Drama of the Gifted Child":

"My parents loved me
narcissistically, alas
and now I am sad"

The next is Jules thinking about the relationship between Ash and Goodman:

"The love between a brother and a sister just over a year apart in age held fast.  It wasn't twinship, and it wasn't romance, but it was more like a passionate loyalty to a dying brand."  My kids are only 14 months apart, but they have not yet found that passionate loyalty.  Hopefully it will come with age.

Another great quote is Ash responding to a worried mom, who is concerned that her daughter won't find work as a director, and should try something safer:

". . .if she does really, really want it, and if she seems to have a talent for it, then I think you should tell her 'That's wonderful.'  Because the truth is, the world will probably whittle your daughter down.  But a mother never should."  I cried a little at that one.

Finally, Jules gives Ethan great advice about how to relate to his son who has autism:  "Love your son . . .Love him and love him."

The Interestings also fits into my "secret formula".  There are several books, like The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl that follow a formula that I seem to fall for.  The formula involves a person going to a new school, and recognizing a coed clique that she wants to join.  Once the clique finally accepts the newcomer, she realizes that the group has a secret that she would be better off not knowing.  Usually a teacher is also involved.  The Interestings doesn't fit the formula perfectly, but it comes pretty close.  In The Interestings, Jules doesn't seem to realize that the clique exists until Ash invites her to join.  The secret comes later, and instead of being a secret from outsiders, this secret exists within the clique itself.  A counselor, instead of a teacher, is in on the plan from the start. 

There was so much that I loved about this book.  Each time that I thought that it was predictable and was falling into cliches, Wolitzer threw in a perfect twist to keep the story interesting.  There are so many more topics that I could talk about, like Jules' envy, Ethan's relationship issues, Goodman's arrogance, and Dennis' just plain goodness.  These are all characters who you should really get to know.  I'm adding this one to my growing list of FavoritesThe Interestings was a NYT Notable for 2013.

Next Up:  Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks.  This is the next Typical Book Group pick.

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett.  I've just reached the half way mark on this one, but the second half should go faster, now that the holidays are over and I'm back to my daily driving routines.

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