Friday, October 10, 2014
I was in my mid- to late twenties before I realized what a profound effect my adolescent years — particularly the high school years — had on me. During that time, I felt the first swell of romantic love, the devastation of broken friendships, the unchecked rage toward my parents. I may not remember the details of those years today, but I can effortlessly access the emotions. Looking back, I realize that the reason those years were so meaningful is because that was the time in my life when I began to form my personal narrative.
There were some big changes in my life during that time that were completely out of my control. And because of the way I obsessed about boys, the potentially dangerous situations that I threw myself into with wild abandon, the competitiveness I felt with my friends, and my apathy toward school, a worldview and identity took shape that I've only managed to revise in my thirties. I believed I was a rebel, that I was stupid, that I was unattractive, and that I was daring. I saw the world, by turns, as a hostile and enticingly mysterious place. This personal narrative became only more fully ingrained with time, as I reconstructed and retold these experiences to others in an effort to communicate who I was.
Like me, Julie Jacobson, the protagonist in Meg Wolitzer's 2013 novel, The Interestings, begins her personal narrative in adolescence, specifically the summer she is fifteen. That summer, in 1974, at an arts camp outside New York called Spirit-in-the-Woods, unremarkable suburbanite Julie is rechristened the more glamorous "Jules" when she is initiated into a group of five friends who call themselves (with an arrogance and irony that only teenagers are capable of) "The Interestings."
The friends, male and female alike, form an unbreakable bond, and the novel follows them from adolescence into middle age. Jules's new friends are privileged, ambitious, and possess what Jules learns much later are rare talents. Spirit-in-the-Woods is the place where many of her friends' gifts are first realized, and some go on to achieve wild success.
Jules's worldview mirrors those of her friends. She believes she has access to the same opportunities as they do, and she pursues them in earnest. Her self-worth and well-being are tied to her endless comparisons to her friends, and for a long time, she can't reconcile why her life has gone in one direction, and theirs in another. Despite having a quieter life, however, Jules finds true love; is well respected in her chosen field; and is a loving mother, wife, and friend. And as her friends' lives evolve and as some of their flaws and struggles are revealed, Jules is able to gain a fresh perspective and extricate herself from this punishing social comparison.
The denouement of this novel is Jules's awakening. Like me, she does not remain arrested in her development. She is able to compartmentalize those transformative years, she comes to realize that she is accomplished in her own right, and she begins to experience gratitude for the gifts that she has received.
Yes, I loved this novel because Wolitzer writes with such eye-opening acuity, and yes, I loved it because the characters are so dynamic that I was fully invested in them. I also loved it because, like many novels that I fall in love with, I was able to connect on a deeply personal level: the unformed emotional fragments that floated around in my subconscious were brought to the surface for a reckoning. The Interestings gave me the objectivity I needed, through Jules, to be reminded that, while I may not be particularly interesting and while there still exist some traces of the rebel I once was, I have more agency now. And this means I have a new story to tell, one authentic and powerful enough to eclipse the narrative of my youth.