When we first meet the Interestings on the night of their ironic self-naming, the six teens gathered in a teepee at a summer camp for artistic types are impressed and amused by themselves, confident and full of promise.
There is Ash Wolf, a great beauty; her magnetic brother Goodman; Cathy Kiplinger, a dancer comfortable in her non-dancer body; goodhearted Ethan Figman, who is unattractive but a prodigiously talented animator; Jonah Bay, the guitar-playing son of a famous folk singer, and Julie Jacobson, “an outsider and possibly even a freak,” who gets invited into this circle, takes on the name Jules and never looks back.
“Just by being here in this teepee at the designated hour, they all seduced one another with greatness, or with the assumption of eventual greatness,” Meg Wolitzer’s all-knowing narrator tells us. “Greatness-in-waiting.”
By the third chapter, hints of that greatness — as well as inevitable disappointments — are revealed, with a glimpse into the future some 35 years after that summer night in Massachusetts.
Wolitzer spends the rest of her masterful, sweeping new novel filling in the details of lives drawn together and separated over the decades. Her clear gaze captures the intricacies of lasting friendship, enduring love, marital sacrifice, bitter squabbles, family secrets, parental angst and deep loss. Though the story hops back and forth in time, it is rarely confusing, frequently funny and always engaging.
A Long Island kid who never fails to marvel at her inclusion with the cool New York City crowd, Jules is the novel’s center. She’s a wisecracking observer and truth-teller, even when the truth about her envious self is less than flattering. Ugly, kind, dear Ethan loves her upon meeting at Spirit-in-the-Woods, though she cannot make herself return his ardor.
The two strike up a sweet friendship that lasts even after they marry other people, and Jules settles for a non-artistic career while Ethan’s creative star, hitched to his animated characters, ascends to Seth MacFarlane-like levels. Early in the lives of the Interestings, a shocking event rends the clique and changes its dynamic permanently.
But the core members remain, persisting as history marches forward. Richard Nixon is about to resign when the group first meets in 1974; the members bear witness to New York City’s renaissance, the devastating emergence of the AIDS virus, the Sept. 11 attacks, war and the impact of globalization. By the novel’s end, Barack Obama is in the White House.
Still, Spirit-in-the-Woods remains stuck in time, with relatively few acknowledgements of modernity (mainly, the addition of traditional West African drumming “in the 1980s, with multiculturalism” and, inexplicably, llamas).
At 468 pages, the novel is lengthy and occasionally lingers on small details. But the end result is a story that feels real and true and more than fulfills the promise of the title. It is interesting, yes, but also moving, compelling, fascinating and rewarding.
Hannah Sampson is a Miami Herald staff writer.