Book Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer  (Vintage)

Flashes of genius can’t prevent The Interestings from too often getting stuck in a word bog 

Meg Wolitzer’s modern classic The Wife is a gripping, thought provoking and provocative novel that has become one of the defining feminist fiction books of the past few years. I loved it and, after taking so long to discover this great American writer, was delighted to see she had a back catalogue I could explore. The Interestings is her latest novel, published in 2013. It’s in the great American tradition of family sagas – a story for the sake of a story, the lives, loves and loses of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in the 1960s and – with an ironic wink – call themselves the interestings.

The plot is largely discarded for character, something I’m usually all for, but there was something a little meandering about The Interestings that never quite held me hostage to it in the way The Wife did. It seemed to be missing a heart;The Wife was cold and impersonal but that suited  the narrative. The aloofness of The Interestings meant I never felt I was there on this journey with the characters. I don’t believe in having to like characters to enjoy a book, in real life people are flawed so why can’t fictional humans be as irritating, self-obsessed and vacuous as we are. But when the characters are the novel’s driving force, it’s imperative that they’re, well, interesting. And I found them rather underwhelming

Jules – in many ways the story’s narrator and centre – should have been larger than life, a teenage misfit who finds herself in with the cool gang, including the beautiful, ethereal Ash Wolf and her brother, the beguiling if troubled Goodman. But instead she sat flat on the page, never quite pinging to life. I liked her husband, the great, hulking Dennis, the ordinary male provider and protector in a book full of creative dreamers.

Jules’s life is set on its path when she arrives at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp a geeky, suburban, awkward teenager and leaves an aspiring actress with a newly discovered funny side. Her and Ash will be life long friends. Ethan Figman, ugly and talented loves Jules, but marries Ash. He will become widely successful as an animator and creator of a Simpsons’s style show, his life becoming all staff and houses in the country while Jules and Dennis struggle to pay the rent on their one-bed apartment. Then there’s Jonah who drifts in and out of the story, a beautiful gay boy who becomes an increasingly wisp of a character as the novel progresses. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored by a character.

Maybe the novel’s lack of commitment is writing about friendships – and this is essentially what The Interestings is – is like breakdancing to town planning – it can never quite tell the whole story. Wolitzer tries to capture these complex relationships that are so full of happiness, sadness, secrets, simmering anger, pettiness, loyalty and compassion and yet are never as fiercely bonded as family. In fiction, friendships are often so perfect, devoid of the dramas and jealousies that bind you to people. Wolitzer does tap into the envy and the divide money creates between old friends, both socially as well as materially, but even she seems to chicken out of confronting it full on.

On form,Wolitzer’s prose is as arresting as ever, although there were pages when I felt the sentences got stuck in a word quagmire, some of the themes laboured intensively over a few chapters, before being left fallow (the friends with money thread being the obvious one, did I miss the point it suddenly went from being A Major Issue for Jules to her being totally fine with it?). And there were some fascinating paragraphs when Wolitzer speaks so eloquently about the human condition that it punches you hard in the heart. These parts are an absolute joy to read and the reason why the rest of Meg Wortlizer’s back catalogue remain mid-table in my TBR pile.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

I’m late to the Meg Wolitzer party, although it’s rather less of a party and more of the after-dinner mess, all wine-stained lips and drunken tear-streaked cheeks.

But increasingly her name cropped up on my radar that challenged my pre-conception that her novels were too domestic, too insular for my tastes. I had fallen into the very trap that Wolitzer tackles in The Wife, the idea that books written by women writers are narrower – ‘female’ – in scope than male authors whose narrative we accept as the norm.

The Wife is far larger than its domestic setting and says so about the world we live in with such composure and understanding. It’s the story of one wife’s domestic unhappiness through which Wolitzer tells the larger picture of living in a world that’s narrated by men, both in literature and in the real world.

Joe Castleman is a “man that owns the world”, Joan, his rock, his carer, in short, his wife. He’s a successful white man of a certain class and age who is at ease with the world because it’s entirely run his way. We met him and Joan en-route to Finland where he’s heading to collect the Helsinki Prize (a Lidl Nobel Prize). It’s on this transatlantic flight that Joan decides to leave her husband who has set the rhythm of her life for too long.

Joan takes us back through their life together, beginning in the 1950s when women were still tied to the kitchen sink, a baby on one hip and their husband’s dinner in the oven. Women may have broken free of the kitchen, but depressingly many of the points that Joan Castleman refers to are still relevant today, the “men who own the world” still set the agenda and how we – male and female – view it. We’re characters in the fiction that has been created where the male view is the norm. The Wife challenges the idea that the male story has to be the universal one, that fiction written by women can’t be big and far reaching.

But as much as The Wife resonates with unfailing truths, it’s a story not a manifesto and it’s a damn good one. Joe is so real with his flabby middle aged spread, smugness and wandering hands. The world is his for the taking and he’s grabbing it with two fat greedy hands. Written in the first person, Joan is no sweetheart, she’s hard-nosed, caustic and seemingly humourless (although, to be fair, she doesn’t seem to have much to laugh at) and she’s not afraid to steal another man’s husband. Her controlled, unemotional voice doesn’t hint at a love of the sisterhood. But her intelligence and tolerance evokes your understanding, if not your sympathy.

Wolitzer writing is a constant joy, it’s rich and fluid, capturing dialogue and human failings with a hypnotic ease. She hits just the right tone, blunting the sharpness with wit and an emotional heart. This is one tear-stained party I’m definitely going back to.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Maria Semple was an LA-based script writer for shows including Ellen, Mad About You and Arrested Development before moving to Seattle and swapping TV writing for novels. In her Women’s Prize For Fiction nominated novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette she brings the humour, the pace and the precision that makes great TV to this warm, funny, charming, clever book. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a joy to read from beginning to end, but for all its humour its far from a light and fluffy read, there’s a (often very funny) darkness that lies just beneath the surface of its fizzy narrative.

The AWOL Bernadette of the title was once a brilliant LA-based architect who fled her job and Los Angeles after a disagreement with an arrogant, smarmy yet wildly successful English TV producer (who could this be possibly based on?) and followed her Microsoft-employed husband Elgie to soggy Seattle, a city she hates with such passion that you know its wormed its way into her affections. In the years since their move, Bernadette has barely left their leaky, crumbling house, a former girls correction centre that was to be her Seattle project.

Much of the humour comes from Bernadette’s scathing view of Seattle. She hates the lakes, the mountains, the rain, the Big Brotherly-ness of Microsoft and the fustiness of the residence. She hates that it’s so near ‘nice’ Canada. One of the highlights is a chapter where Bernadette writes a vicious, hilarious letter to a former colleague pouring sharply funny scornballs all over the city that spawned grunge. But as much as she dislikes the city, she dislikes the idea of leaving it even more. When her daughter Bee, a straight A student, asks for a family trip to Antarctica as her end of year award, Bernadette is horrified. How can a woman who finds leaving the house a bumpy enough ride, navigate the turbulent waters of Drake’s Passage?

But in a bid to escape the mental hospital where her Microsoft absorbed husband Elgie believes is the only place for his wife who, he thinks, runs over school gate mother’s feet and causes mudslides by wilfully pulling out the soil-binding blackberry bushes, she throws herself at the mercy of the world’s most treacherous sea crossing. (To be fair to Elgie, his concerns over her mental health aren’t helped by him finding her asleep in a pharmacy. Oh, and then there’s the FBI investigation).

When Bernadette fails to return from her Antarctic adventure, everyone, expect tenacious Bee thinks she’s dead. The novel is the story of her search for her mother told through a series of letters, emails, police reports, even a (brilliant)  transcript of a TED talk on robots given by Elgie. This mish mash of what forms the evidence in Bee’s quest is linked by the fifteen-year-old’s eminently sensible but far from dull narrative. Semple somehow manages to make the complex and unlikely reality of Bee coming to have in her possession everything from letters from the blackberry bush exterminator to two-line postcards between once close friends sound completely plausible. I can’t imagine the kinds of knots she tied herself into writing it.

Bernadette is a rare fictional female. We know she wears big dark sunglasses even in the rain and tames her unruly, Seattle-rain ravaged hair in a jaunty headscarf. We know she’s 50. We know she doesn’t worry about her weight or wrinkles; she’s not in a tortured marriage nor having a messy affair; she’s not beautiful (or at least we’re not told she is), her effect on men is based purely on her architectural achievements and her uncompromising professional personality.

Your opinion on the novel will no doubt be dictated by how much you like Bernadette. I loved her; she was as refreshing as a Seattle shower, as funny and as flawed and a little bit mad as all the best people are. She was kinder than any of the church-going, PTA-attending women at the school gates who sneered at her out-of-town unorthodoxy and, although almost consigned to a mental hospital, saner than most others around her. There are a host of other characters, all borderline caricatures, but with the true comic writer’s touch of injecting them with enough humanity to make them less cartooning and more relatable. But ultimately, this is Bernadette’s journey, and one you’ll have a blast joining her on.

by Suzanne Elliott