Book Review

June 21st, 2013  |  Published in June 2013

Book Review

by Daniel Brown

Meg Wolitzer, whose often sharp and astute novels about contemporary urban women  have brought her to the attention of serious fiction readers, has written her finest novel to date, The Interestings.  It’s a very long novel, and follows the lives of six friends and their outer circle throughout their lives, stopping before old age.

They meet at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, an artistic camp for gifted urban adolescents.  A circle of the most popular already exists, and Ash Wolf, the most popular/beautiful of them all, welcomes scholarship camper Julie Jacobson, who quickly becomes integrated into this group, and whose rapid name change to Jules parallels her flowering personality–laced with ironic humor–as the summer progresses and she begins to become Ash’s best friend. The other friends include Ash’s ne’r -do-well brother Goodwin, an animationist, Ethan Figman, and Jonah Bey, whose mother is, at the time of the novel (early l970s) a famous folksinger.  Each friend is, in her or his way, a gifted child, and most are very aware of this fact, though all are likeable, and Wolitzer writes admirably about this period of adolescence and its concern with group identity and behavior, insecurities, and the “specialness” of the protagonists (the book is written from the point of view of Jules).

All will remain friends on and off throughout life; one, Ethan, will become hugely famous and rich; one, Goodwin, will become lost, on the lam; Jules will struggle financially with her depressive husband; Jonah will become gay: many of life’s traumas and separations, crises and disappearances, will occur, as in life itself.

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the envy that Jules feels for her best friend Ash as her life moves into the stratosphere of fame and money.  Ash’s Central Park West family virtually adopts the lonely Jules, who’s from a small and modest Long Island town, and Jules fantasies include frequent escapes to this worldy apartment and Ash’s seemingly flawless parents.  But her acceptance into this group really does change her, give her more self-confidence, open her eyes to a much larger urban world:  I like Wolitzer for this, for understanding that changes in friendship in adolescence can indeed make a lonely outside blossom and flourish.  And I admire the friendship between these two women, and how they really are there for each other in and during life’s unpredictable crises and rites of passage.  Wolitzer’s feel for the friendship between women and between men and women–she is correct that such friendships between genders became common as boomers began to mature–is superb, and she is gentle and understanding of these lovely
people whom she has created and whom she nurtures throughout the novel.  They grow and they fall back, divorce and illnesses will occur, children are born with autism, and the like. Wolitzer balances the good and the bad, and no one gets it all.

Her belief in the consistency of character is both correct, admirable, and beautifully delineated. This is a big novel, long, complex, lovely.

It also compares favorably to the much overpraised novel of about three years back by Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children.  The adolescents in that novel comes from similar New York backgrounds, the protagonists even come from those same Central Park apartments, but, oh what a difference in their personalities:  Messud’s characters are whiny and spoiled and wildly overindulged–they are, after all , The Emperor’s Children–milleniums who have had too much materially and too much parental intervention (those awful helicopter parents abound). It’s fascinating that two such different women writers would mine similar territory and conclude so differently about what America’s affluent urban children are like and what friendship means to them:  I vote with Wolitzer, whose maturity and wisdom, kindness and sensitivity, make her friends in The Interestings people we care about, like, and with whom we empathize.

One wishes we could have and be the kinds of friends Wolitzer presents in this splendid and completely readable new novel.

—-Daniel Brown


Andre Aciman was born into a privileged Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, which was one of the world’s most open and tolerant cities for centuries.  Arab nationalism, particularly of the Nasser variety, helped stir up anti-Semitism in that region and that Chekovian city, and the Aciman family was stripped of all its possessions (and sense of self, self esteem, and identity) and the family moved to Italy, and eventually to America.

Aciman is one of the best writers in and of exile; he neither lives in America nor Egypt but somewhere in his memories of Egypt and of Rome; his is a proto-Proustian sensibility, searching for that lost time but developing concentric circles of memory and doubt and beauty around time and objects.   Several books of his essays depict these longings, and describe his inability to connect anywhere, as when he is back in Alexandria, he thinks only of New York, and when in New York, his mind my move back to Rome: he has, however, created some brilliant writing, both fiction and non-fiction around these sensibilities ; he is one of the best purveyors of what I call “exile literature”.

His first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was a splendidly sensuous account of a summer in Italy, where an academic family of some means allows one student to stay with the family for one summer.  Aciman’s descriptions of objects, of weather, of that kind of languid sensuality one gets from sitting in the sun, eating fruit, semi-reading, aware of atmosphere and weather, is astonishing, and he posits a homosexual affair between the son of the owning family and the summer guest: the novel is partly so successful because of Aciman’s courage in wringing the very sweat of sensuousness from his male characters, whom he treats with the same passion as many writers do of sexual relationships between men and women (Aciman is, by the way, straight).
He does the same with his second novel, set in New York.

Now comes his third novel, Harvard Square.  The narrator /protagonist is a young man from a rich Jewish family in Alexandria, who is studying at the graduate level at Harvard.  He finds himself, however, attracted to a small, young, expatriate community of North African Berbers and Arabs, who hang out in those neo-Mediterranean cafes on Brattle Street in Cambridge, where a Tunisian man, known only by his nickname, a shortened version of a Kalishnikov weapon, reigns supreme.  The novel weaves in and around the friendship between these two young men, and their friends.  Although our narrator will eventually return to his studies at Harvard, Aciman’s tug-of-war between the two worlds, Middle Eastern/Cambridge, is beautifully rendered.  Cambridge may well be a kind of mecca for nineteen year olds, but its provincialism and the mores of academics (particularly when entertaining in their houses) is well rendered and it’s refreshing to read a writer not enamored of Harvard and its environment, which seem small and petty after his life in Alexandria. He is ongoingly drawn back to that Mediterranean passion represented by his Tunisian Berber cab-driving friend and their circle of equally passionate women.  The contrasts between these two cultures are at the heart of the novel, as they represent the conflicts within the narrator–who may, again, not quite fit anymore in the old culture, while he also rejects the new in its stuffy provincialism.

Underlying the friendship between these men and the education in seductive techniques by
the Berber to our narrator, is the utter lack of money the Berber has, and the real possibility
that he will be deported–which, in the end, he is, and then he vanishes entirely from everyone’s world.

Except that, with the patina of memory(the novel posits that our narrator is showing Harvard to his own son, who is applying for admission a generation later), reactivates all these memories–that Proustian madeleine makes its reappearance with all sorts of places, place names, objects, weather, and the like which make Aciman’s literature so poetic, so lyrical, and so Proustian.

Harvard Square is a touching novel, partly because it deals with a group of people at such a sensitive age of awakening, and partly because Aciman writes so well of that admixture of past and future, of love amongst the ruins, if you will.

I recommend it for these reasons, and recommend trying other Aciman novels and particularly his essays about Alexandria:he’s a brilliant man and writer, and that Proustian sense of time and place may be something well worth reexcavating in a time of moral, cultural, and literary unconsciousness.

—-Daniel Brown

Comments are closed.