‘Baby boomers” refers to people born between 1945 and 1964, but these years really span two generations. Those born before the mid-1950s fought in Vietnam, went to Woodstock, and staged sit-ins on college campuses, while their younger siblings were home watching Gomer Pyle and “The Brady Bunch” on television.
The main characters in Meg Wolitzer’s complex and engaging new novel, “The Interestings,” were born in 1959 (as was Wolitzer). They’re members of that shadow generation, not old enough to have participated fully in the dramatic events that dominated their childhoods, vaguely aware that when they finally arrived late to the party of adulthood, it, and they, might turn out to be less fascinating than they hoped.
We meet the group of friends self-dubbed “The Interestings” at an arts camp catering mostly to kids from New York City. It’s 1974, the summer President Nixon resigned, and though the friends are only 15, they seem immersed in loss. Jonah’s mother is a has-been folk singer “trying to stay relevant.” Julie, who adopts the nickname “Jules” to shed her Long Island ordinariness, has just lost her father to pancreatic cancer. Cathy, who aspires to be a dancer, is already too big-breasted for that dream to come true. Ash and Goodman, a glamorous sister and brother pair, bear the taint of golden youths headed for a fall.
Though the friends have “seduced one another with greatness, or the assumption of eventual greatness,” only Ethan, a homely cartoonist from an unhappy home, actually seems destined to succeed, as an artist. At camp, he creates an animated fantasy about a young boy who escapes his parents’ incessant quarreling by entering a parallel world in a shoebox under his bed. The cartoon will one day be syndicated and make Ethan an international power player and multimillionaire — though not an altogether contented one.
Just as in the “Up” series, in which filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed people every seven years, starting at age 7 (and which Wolitzer has cited as an influence), in “The Interestings” there is almost as much pathos in potential fulfilled as in potential unrealized.
A young Ash announces: “Talent gets you through life.” The truth, evident as Wolitzer follows the Interestings, plus assorted supporting characters convincingly through four decades, is that persistence and resilience are more valuable. Jules, for example, moves from shy teen to failed comedic actress to wife, mother, therapist, and then empty nester contemplating a second career. Her professional life and her marriage to an ultrasound technician who suffers from severe depression are more satisfying and even more “interesting” than her younger self could have imagined.
The other friends undergo similar evolutions from adolescence to midlife, buffeted by legal, financial, and marital troubles, mental and physical illness, and the vicissitudes of current events. Wolitzer is painstaking not only in her richly detailed portrayals of her characters, but also of the times in which they live. At times, though, a surfeit of historical touchstones — Moonies, the Preppie Murder, LSD, 9/11, AIDS, high crime rates of the ’70s, and long gas pump lines (these last two wedged into a single sentence) — threaten to distract from Wolitzer’s skillful storytelling.
This is, however, a minor flaw in a major novel, so modern in subject and yet almost Victorian in its scope and range. Wolitzer explores sex, love, marriage, parenthood, friendship, money, class, art, youth, and age through the lives of a handful of people who belong to the last of that generation whose members feared, above all, being dull.
Suzanne Koven is a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and writes the monthly “In Practice” column for the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.