Study Guide

The Interestings Themes

  • Jealousy

    We tend to think of jealousy as something that has free reign in kids and teens but that tapers off when we grow up and get all mature and stuff. The Interestings is here to make it crystal that that this is so not the case. Jealousy runs rampant in the novel, mostly in the form of the main character, Jules, and it seems to actually get worse when she becomes an adult. As she gets older, she covets the lives and things of others more. Her life and relationships are governed by jealousy, so much so that the book almost treats it like it's inevitable.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Jules doesn't seem to be jealous equally—why might she be more jealous of Ash than Ethan, when Ethan is the successful one?
    2. Why don't we don't really see jealousy in the second generation (i.e. Mo, Rory, Larkin)? Do we see it in the Interestings' parents? What does this tell us about jealousy's legacy?
    3. Is jealousy really inevitable when friends have different levels of success, like the book sort of hints?

    Chew on This

    Jules's jealousy is tied so tightly to her love for Ethan and Ash that it almost seems like she thinks her obsession with them should have pulled her across that success gap.

    Rory and Larkin are super different but get along without jealousy, so we'd be willing to say that they're the more perfected form of Jules's and Ash's friendship.

  • Friendship

    Friendship is supposed to be the main thing in The Interestings. It's about a group that bonds as teens and then slowly shifts around as they move into adulthood. Instead of focusing on the joys of friendship, though, this book shows how friendship can fail and not be enough for a person. Friendship isn't just the tie that binds with this group, it's also what pushes people (think: Cathy) from the group and splits loyalties.

    And, of course, when friendship becomes something you're in love with (like Jules is), rather than an extension of your love for other people, it starts clouding judgments and warping relationships rather than making them better.

    Questions About Friendship

    • In what ways is Jules and Ash's friendship typical? In what ways does it deviate from what we might expect friendship to look like? Combined, what does this tell you about this theme in the novel?
    • What role does romance play in Ethan and Jules's friendship? Does this change? How can you tell, and what impact does this have on their relationship with each other?
    • How do the marriages in this book function next to the friendships?

    Chew on This

    People may think Jules is their friend, but she's incapable of true friendship—her own interests and needs always come first.

    The friendship between Ethan and Jules prevents them from ever being 100% devoted to their own spouses because their friendship is forever tainted by romance.

  • Memory and The Past

    In The Interestings, the characters (especially Jules) spend so much time idealizing the past and reexamining memories that they can't recognize the truth anymore. Memory and the past are like snares in this book, holding characters hostage in the present and presenting big blind spots when it comes to personal understanding. The characters that feel happiest are the ones that don't dwell on the past but try to push through it when it gets all up in the present (like Dennis and Cathy). The rest, though, carry a pretty heavy burden with them.

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. Why does Jules spend so much time on memories if she felt like an impostor when she was a kid? Does the past validate her in the present? Why or why not?
    2. What is it about the way Dennis deals with the past that makes him who he is? How does he hold the past differently than Jules? How about than Jonah?
    3. Is Ash trapped in the past? Does the reemergence of Goodman impact her relationship with the past at all? What does this tell you about her as a character?

    Chew on This

    Goodman is a symbol for the impossibility of moving forward without addressing the past.

    Cathy is the only person who truly makes it in the end because she's the only person who resolves the past and leaves it there.

  • Madness

    In The Interestings, we're using the theme of madness loosely, as an in to explore mental illness and the ways in which it rears its head in both Dennis and Mo Figman. Dennis struggles with depression, and it winds up nearly ending his marriage and his life. Mo, though a more minor character, has some kind of autism-spectrum disorder that keeps him from connecting to people.

    In both cases, the mental illness is vague and puts the characters into a murky haze of ambiguity—Dennis's medication is a trial and error thing, and Mo's illness is actually referred to as a "Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified." Mental illness in this book is a very real and powerful thing, and the book doesn't shy away from the complexity of relationships between people with a mental illness and people without one.

    Questions About Madness

    1. What similarities do you see between Dennis and Mo's experiences with mental illness? How about between their families responses? Are their significant differences?
    2. How does the book treat mental illness in comparison to bodily illness, i.e. HIV and cancer? What impact does this have on the theme?
    3. Are there any undiagnosed mental illnesses you see in the book? Use the text to support your claim.

    Chew on This

    Goodman's self-delusion and Jules's jealousy are way more damaging in the long run than any of the mental illness we see in this book.

    Ultimately, this book works hard to combat negative stigmas about mental illness.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    Sexuality is all over The Interestings. We have Jonah, who struggles to come to terms with being gay, and of course, his partner, Robert. But more than that, we have a group of people who come of age, going from their awkward and hormonally-driven teen years, to adulthood, where we see them deploying sex in all kinds of messy ways to navigate who they are.

    Perhaps the biggest role that sexuality plays in the book, though, is as a sort of ghost—the tale is haunted by the unresolved matter of whether Goodman rapes Cathy. And while this may not be sexuality in its classic definition, how characters relate to this tells us a whole lot about who they are, becoming a sort of sexual identity in its own right.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. We know that Jonah is out in some sense, so why does he have that strange exchange with Robert that leaves him kind of guessing about Jonah's sexuality?
    2. In what ways is the group divided or paired up based on sexual identity or sexuality? How about when it comes to how they relate to Cathy?
    3. What is Jules's relationship to sexuality as a child and an adult? Does it change? What does this say about her?

    Chew on This

    For Jonah, his sexual identity is as much about being gay as it is about being drugged as a kid.

    Cathy isn't only outcast because she accuses Goodman of rape, but because the girls can't wrap their minds around the contrast between Cathy's appearance and the idea that she doesn't want sex.

  • Appearances

    Appearance is a major player in The Interestings, operating in a couple of useful and interesting ways. With so many characters, there's a level of description that has to happen in order to properly introduce someone, but we get it over and over again for most of the people we meet. This is because, in this book, appearance is a way of locating someone in the loopy time jumps of the novel, as well as a way of revealing personality quirks without explaining everything outright. Think of appearance as a bit of a guide through the varied and, um, interesting terrain of this book.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Is there some way that Ethan's ugliness contributes to his later success? Why does his ugliness matter? Or, put another way, does his ugliness matter?
    2. Jules is always talking about her mediocre looks, especially compared to Ash, but can we trust her judgment, given that she's always obsessed with other people/things being better?
    3. What is it about Goodman's appearance that ends up being a drawback in his life? At what point do his looks start working against him, if at any?

    Chew on This

    In The Interestings, the most beautiful people are the ones that end up being kind of lackluster or overshadowed.

    There's a lot of time spent on Ash's appearance, but we'd guess that the narrator thinks Dennis's appearance is best—it's the most lovingly described, and indicates a first-rate personality.

  • Lies and Deceit

    There's a whole lot of lying in The Interestings. Seriously. Ash lies about Goodman to Ethan, Ethan lies to Ash about not being able to come to Mo's appointment… Wait a second… It seems like most of the lying goes on between Ash and Ethan. Sure, Jules also knows about Goodman, but she's forced into that and sworn to secrecy by the Wolfs. So what's up with lies and deceit then? In this book, they're definitely tied to the kind of privilege and success Ethan and Ash and the Wolfs have. Instead of mo' money, mo' problems, it's mo' money, mo' lies for this crew.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why do you think Jules never calls out Ash on being a hypocrite about lying to Ethan?
    2. Is it fair of the Wolf family to bring Jules along to Iceland without giving her the option to refuse to hear their secret?
    3. What's different or similar about Jules and Dennis' relationship as compared to Ethan and Ash's when it comes to lying?
    4. Is any of the lying or deception in the book useful? Why or why not? How does this contribute to the significance of this theme?

    Chew on This

    This book suggests that lying is a luxury afforded those with time and money to kill.

    Jules is actually the biggest liar in this book because she deceived Dennis into believing their marriage is something she actually wants, when really she just covets other people's lives.

  • Art and Culture

    The Interestings is all about art and culture. Seriously—check out the "Allusions" section; it's full of shout-outs to other works. This book loves itself some references to authors, musicians, actors, and more. Interestingly, while Jules is obsessed with her oh-so-cultured friends and hates her mom and sister for not being the same way, when Jules sees that Dennis is artless, this is held up as a positive. There's a bit of tension there, we'd say. In general, art and culture in this book is a way of dividing people up as much as it is tied to bringing them together.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Does anything happen in Jules's life or mind that makes her go from despising her artless mom and sister to loving artless Dennis? Or is it something in the relationships that makes art and culture matter different amounts? Use the text to support your argument.
    2. What is Ethan's relationship to art and culture, both as an artist and not?
    3. What part does art and culture play in Goodman's exile?
    4. There are so many references to literature, history, and popular culture here—why? What do they bring to the story? How would it be different without them?

    Chew on This

    More than any good it accomplishes, art is a source of agony in this book.

    It's the narrator that describes Dennis's artlessness so lovingly, and this admiration is at odds with Jules's vision of being embarrassed by Dennis during a conversation with Ethan and Ash about an artist.