The Interestings has a pretty straightforward title. It very clearly refers to the tongue-in-cheek name the group from Spirit-in-the-Woods gives themselves, even if they only use it for a limited time. So the title, then, is a shout-out to this group of people we meet and follow from their teen years into adulthood.
On another level, though, the title references Jules's relationship to the group specifically. They may sarcastically dub themselves the Interesting as teens, but for Jules, this group of people—and particularly Ash—become more or less a lifelong obsession. Jules is relentlessly fascinated with Ash and her family and money, downing bottles of wine in envy as an adult. And because of this, Jules fails to really become her own person—she only ever understands herself in comparison—which ultimately makes Jules a less interesting person than she might be otherwise.
Cruel trick, title, but well played all the same.
This last line is a heavy-hitter in terms of the title and the general theme of the book. Plus, it comes right after Ethan's death and when Ash gives Jules the book she finds in Ethan's study that has drawings of the first night Ethan tried to kiss Jules and she rejected him. And the end of the novel, the book basically looks back and says that life is always imperfect and always just a little bit off. But here's the last line proper for you:
And didn't it always go like that—body parts not lining up the way you wanted them to, all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn't stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting. (22.48)
You could probably read this ending in more than one way, so feel free to explore your own interpretation, but we're thinking that this is a surprisingly calm note to end on. It's basically like, life's messy and imperfect and hard, but despite knowing the inevitability of all this, it's still captivating, there's still a reason to tune in. Yes, even if you spend most of your life riddled with jealousy.
We don't just mean New York City, you know. New York State is a big place, and this book runs all over it.
Jules starts out in Underhill, a fictional New York suburb that she finds boring and generally nothing to be proud of. This sets her up to be ripe for yeaning for other places, and for romanticizing them when she encounters them.
Spirit-in-the-Woods is in Belknap, though, which is also a made-up town that looks like it pretty much only has the camp and the fictional Langton Hull Psychiatric Hospital. Belknap is a place outside of time for Jules and the other campers, and it has a woodsy setting to go with it. Curiously, the psychiatric hospital is also kind of timeless, since Dennis goes there for a while right in the middle of college and then picks up where he left off afterward.
Outside of Jules's home and the camp, most of the book takes place in New York City, though this is before "Manhattan would unimaginably be colonized by the rich" and during the "fading days of thinking you could do what you wanted out in the open in the city" (5.106). This is NYC in the 1970s, and most of the plot that happens in the city takes place either in the Wolfs' elaborate apartment building or in various tiny apartments the gang moves into after college.
Manhattan represents everything Jules wants in making friends with the Interestings. It has culture and pizazz, and it's all too predictable that when she finally gets to NYC on her own, she doesn't live within range of any of that.
We've mentioned that this story takes place between the 1970s and the early 2000s, but what does that really mean? Well, for starters it means that this book opens with Nixon and the Vietnam War, moseys on through the Reagan era, and ends up just a few years past September 11, 2001, when New York City and other places were attacked by terrorists.
Why is it that this book, which is really about the small details of the lives of a group of friends as they grow from teens to adults, rests on a background of some of the craziest political periods in history? For one thing, it shows us these political problems from a perspective we don't usually get to see—the individual human one. But on the flip side, it also shows us that while grand events take place, tiny daily lives march onward anyway, complete with jealousy, arguments, and failed careers.
"While riding on a train goin' west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had"
- Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan's Dream"
"… to own only a little talent… was an awful, plaguing thing… being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time." - Mary Robison, "Yours"
Bob Dylan has a weird place in this book. He connects the older generation with the younger one through Jonah's mom—apparently Susannah told Bob before he was famous to stay with the Wunderlichs (7.76)—but that's about it. Maybe that's the kicker, though. Maybe this epigraph is talking about the transition between youth and adulthood, and how we never completely lose that younger self, even if it only sticks around in memories.
The other epigraph is even more of a tearjerker. It comes from a short story by Mary Robison called "Yours," which is about a couple making jack-o-lanterns while the wife slowly dies of cancer. The husband tells his wife her jack-o-lantern faces are much better even though he's the one with a little bit of artistic talent.
The connection to talent is pretty obvious, since most of Jules's character development is connected to how she has only a small amount of talent and never makes it as an actor. This epigraph speaks to Jules's high expectations that are never met and her constant disappointment with her life compared to her friends.
This is a whopper of a book. But while the language isn't too tricky (Wolitzer is no James Joyce, thankfully), the jumping back and forth between time frames can be hard to follow. It's also a strong mix of dialogue and narration, so the reading rhythm changes all the time. For these reasons, The Interestings can be slow going. That said, as the big picture starts to come together, we think you'll be impressed by how many threads are woven together, and find that the hike is totally worth it for he view.
No surprise here, but Spirit-in-the-Woods is the first and most lasting symbol we have in this book. It's the place that starts it all for Jules, and one of the last places she goes to in the book as well, effectively showing us just how little she changes over the course of her life.
When Jules comes to the end of her first summer as a camper, she feels like she's being kidnapped from a world of art and culture and interesting people, and being taken away to some place just totally unsuited to her… a.k.a. her home and family, all of whom are perfectly nice. In this way, then, the camp also symbolizes Jules's lofty ideas about herself, her sense that she's somehow superior to her beginnings. Check out how badly she wants to truly belong to what she sees as the elite crew:
Julie had never actually heard of Günter Grass, but she wasn't going to let on. If anyone asked, she would insist that she too loved Günter Grass, although, she would add as protection, "I haven't read as much of him as I would like." (1.33)
She's ready to step into the role of somebody other than who she is—she's got a plan here—shirking her actual self without batting an eye. Thing is, it works, and she becomes lifelong friends with the Interestings. So, as for feeling like she's being kidnapped when she has to return home at summer's end, in her defense, as anyone who's ever been a teen knows, leaving that behind the in-crowd isn't exactly fun.
The same impulse drives Jules back to the camp when she's older and abruptly changes careers to be a camp director. Dennis even calls her out on it, accusing her of wanting to be a teenager adored at camp instead of overseeing the day-to-day running of it. Again we see Jules not feeling like her real life suits her, and instead fantasizing of the life she might have in the woods. Unfortunately for her, this second go round she's an adult who has to deal with things like grocery orders, so the glamorous days of smoking weed with the cool kids are decidedly over.
Spirit-in-the-Woods is outside normal time, partly because Manny and Edie refuse to change it even the tiniest bit, and partly because the former campers end up creating this idealized version of the camp in their heads instead of remembering what they were really like when they were young. Even Susannah gets in on it when she visits, calling the camp the "best place on earth […] nothing is as close to heaven" (1.185). And Susannah didn't even go—she just sent Jonah.
The camp is a symbol of stability, the past, and Jules's constant dissatisfaction with anything that doesn't exactly match the feelings of possibility and belonging amongst the elite that she has during that first summer. It's pretty unhealthy, actually. Spirit-in-the-Woods is essentially a place that symbolizes Jules's constant need to be a teenager at the center of attention, even as an adult.
The Simpsons… er… we mean… Figland is all over this book. So what makes it a symbol instead of just an ongoing gag or a plot device? It pretty much represents everything Jules envies in Ethan and Ash's life; Figland is symbolic of the golden opportunity that decides who ends up successful and who ends up struggling.
Ethan's show could just as easily have tanked, but it doesn't. He even has a spin-off that he calls "pretty lame," but "pushed […] through because [he] got delusional about the Figland brand" (14.135). It's the reason he and Ash have so much money, it's the reason they stay in New York, and it's (part of) the reason Jules fills up with jealousy every time she gets a Christmas card from them.
Figland is a symbol of the arbitrary fate that sometimes comes along for one person and not for the next—maybe it's because Ethan has great talent, or maybe it's because he just happened to be in the right place at the right time pitching his show to people who could put it on. No matter the reason, for Jules, it symbolizes everything she doesn't have—but maybe, just maybe, could have had if only she'd gone out with Ethan way back when.
We know, we know—it's pretty weird to call two of the main-ish characters symbols. We're actually even calling them a collective symbol, which doesn't help our case. Stick around, though, and we'll tell you why.
What's one of the biggest issues that plagues the book from start to finish? Cathy's alleged rape by Goodman. It's a constant source of ambiguity, and the characters obsess over it for several decades. In other words, collectively, Goodman and Cathy represent the huge, glaring failures of this group of friends Jules thinks is so perfect, and the slight shift in adulthood toward recognizing those failures.
When Goodman is arrested, his family (especially Ash) and Jules fail him by idealizing him instead of holding him accountable to the evidence. They let him run off to Iceland and keep going to see him and support him, effectively giving him a free pass (and showing absolutely no regard for Cathy, or other women who might cross Goodman's path). This doesn't help Goodman at all, though, and instead, he ends up a gross, lurking kind of guy who keeps trying to pretend he's the same suave, untouchable teenager.
When everyone takes up Goodman's side, they just let Cathy drop and quickly cut her out of the group. We don't really know what Cathy is up to in between the arrest and the brief moments she's on television after the 9/11 attacks, though we do know that the only character who seems to feel any remorse over how the group handles her rape claim is Ethan, making it clear that he's a better guy than the rest of the Interestings, if only slightly.
Cathy and Goodman are a constant reminder that this group of friends is so interested in its own, er, interestingness that they fail to address a real problem. And in doing so, they fail to recognize a whole lot of ugliness in both themselves and each other.