In the Happy House, it never rains… or The Interestings

the interestingsI made most of my lifetime dear friends during the late 80s in Boulder, CO. Some of us were in college, some of us were out, some of us never went. But we all revolved around an old rental house that we called the Happy House. The front yard had a weird “sculpture” with an old bathtub and several baby dolls painted with cow spots and some re-purposed  metal air ducts that housed colored lights. Our kooky hoarding landlady lived in the back and minded not a whit what we got up to. We had a fantastic time–until the city made us take down the sculpture, our landlady was cited for excessive junk, and we all slowly dispersed into the world like milkweed in the breeze.

When I saw a blurb for The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, I was drawn to it nostalgically. We never named ourselves anything as pretentious as The Interestings (we just named our house something pretentious) but I could tell from the blurb that the characters were roughly contemporaneous to my Happy House friends and maybe shared some of our quirky interests. It was moved forward on my reading list when one of those good friends, now living in France, recommended it to me in an email.

The Interestings are teenagers when they meet and name themselves–probably about 5 years before my friends and I did–at an artsy summer camp (did I mention that most of us were art students or musician types too?). The book opens when they are all about 15 years old and ends when they are in their early 50s. They grow up throughout the telling of the book–go to college, find jobs, establish careers and abandon them, find love, raise kids, succeed wildly or eke along mediocrely. But most of them remain friends–or at least connected–partially by an act of violence that continues to reverberate through their relationships over the years.

What I loved most about this book is the way it is written to purposefully evoke nostalgia. At first I was a bit puzzled by what Wolitzer was doing with passages like this:

Sex at twenty-two was idyllic. Sex at twenty-two wasn’t college sex at eighteen which carried with it a freight of insecurities, nerve endings, and shame. Sex at twenty-two also wasn’t self sex at twelve, which was just about being quiet and discreet in your narrow bed and thinking how strange it was you could feel this way just by doing this. It also wasn’t sex at fifty-two, which, when it took place all those years later in the middle of the Jacobson-Boyd’s lengthy marriage, could be a sudden, pleasing surprise that awakened one of them from sleep.

But sex at twenty-two, well, that was really something, Jules thought, and apparently Dennis thought so too. Both of their bodies were still perfect, or perfect enough; they would come to see this later on, though they couldn’t see it at the time.

This passage takes place early in the book–when one of the main characters, Jules, is just about to jump in bed with her future husband–and we are told the general arc of their sexual and emotional relationship all right up front, before the dialogue resumes and  they actually strip off their clothes and hop in bed with each other. Wolitzer does this so many times in the first 85% of the book–jumping in and reminding us of the passage of time and alerting us to how the characters will put the upcoming scenes in perspective over the course of their lives. And yet at about the 85% mark, this sort of commentary falls away. The characters are in middle age, all the scenes snap into the present, no narrator tells us how they will feel in the future, and the climax of the book happens in real-time, so to speak. I found this usage of time to be a very effective and clever way to structure the book, enhance the nostalgic quality, and to really sharpen those important final scenes.

I think I was lucky that this book was published for me to read just now. I am on the cusp of my half century mark and can so easily relate to viewing my life–and others–from this wider perspective of the passage of time. My old Happy House friends have all had ups and downs, loves and losses, some succeeded and some languished, some moved far away, some came back, some never left. I live within a block of one of them and will go to visit the one in France next month. We never had any violence between us, and so far, no great tragedies. And hopefully there are many chapters not written yet.

5/5
personal copy
Riverhead Books, 2013

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