Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Book Christmas Advent Calendar day 15: the Times 100 Notable Books and The Interestings book review

I was looking at the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.  I'm not sure why I look at these lists of regular fiction.  Somewhere in me the English Honours graduate is hoping I'll someday turn into a literature reader, I think.  It's time for a change, though.  Out of this list of 100 books published last year, I have heard of 16.  Ouch!  One I've been waiting for:  Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald.  I don't know whether to be happy that I've heard of that many fiction and non-fiction books, or sad that I only know about those few. Because really, this list is about regular fiction.  There is no genre fiction on it:  no historical fiction, and especially, no mysteries, science fiction, or fantasy (or horror for that matter).  And the change for me is, I have to admit to myself that I am a genre reader mainly.  I love mysteries, fantasies, science fiction, and poetry.  There is one poetry book on the list, of which I'd just heard of so I could count it.  Kind of sad.......my literature-studying self is slumped in the corner, drinking a hot chocolate and wondering moodily if I will ever finish Les Miserables, or Bleak House, or Moby Dick, all of which I've started in the past two years.  Will I throw over the Establishment and proudly declare I love genre fiction?  Of course I do!  and yet....when I read Middlemarch for  the first time 5 years ago, I loved it, completely and utterly loved it.  Jane Austen is by far one of my favourite authors of all time, her books read and reread through the years.  I'm not completely hopeless when it comes to classical literature. 

A book review:  The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

So......maybe I should just say, most modern fiction doesn't interest me.  And before you wave your hand, I will also say this:  I read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer earlier this year, which was on the 2013 100 Notable books. I enjoyed it, in parts it was very good, though I found it an odd novel too.  It would draw me in, I would be completely wrapped up in the story, and then something would throw me out of it.  The big something is what the core of the story is about, our value system. I disagreed vehemently with what the Goodman family decides in their time of crisis.  So much so that I put the book down and it took almost two weeks to decide that I could pick it up again, at least because I wanted to (hoped) they wouldn't do what they did.  They did, and for me, it changed the novel.  The Interestings is supposed to be about Jules Jacobson and her friends she meets at an arty summer camp when she is fifteen:  Ash and Goodman Wolf, Ethan Figman, Cathy Kiplinger, and Jonah Bay.  Everyone is exceptional except for Jules.  She is the narrator of the story, the one through whose eyes we see the others take central stage around her.  I liked Jules, though I got annoyed with her and wanted to slap her when she just couldn't see that the others weren't special at all.  It takes her too long to see it, though as she represents middle-class America infatuated with the wealthy 1% which the Goodmans represent, it makes a kind of sense.

The Interestings takes its title from the idea, the hope that 15 year olds have that the whole world is waiting for them, and they (all 15 year olds) have something to offer that the world wants.  Some unique art or talent or voice, some expression that the world needs.  The book goes from the 1970's through to present day.  I really enjoyed the early parts, the 1970's, which I grew up in.  The 1980's are not my favourite time, and it feels like in the book the author doesn't know how to make it fit into Jules idea of how to make your mark in the world.  To give the characters credit, they all try hard to succeed.  And bless Ethan, because he is the moral center of the story.  Gifted and almost ugly, he has a shining soul that sings out from the novel and makes it a better than average novel. 

One of the problems with the book is that the things I wanted to know about, such as when Ash and Jules get pregnant at the same time, I wanted to go through the experience with them.  What was it like for Jules to be so poor, and Ash so rich?  How was their medical experience different?  Didn't they compare notes being pregnant, as very close best friends do?  We don't get to see much of this, Jules (and the author) skip over this with a brief mention, and it's this that made me realize that the book doesn't focus on what makes people interesting, which is the stuff of their lives.  What makes them individual.  Indeed, it takes Jules almost the whole book to come to this realization, that Ash and Goodman aren't good people, and aren't that interesting.    We do get some things like how Ash and Ethan offer Jules and her husband money to move to a bigger apartment in New York City.  Ethan is the only successful one of the group, he becomes a millionaire, and he is desperate to keep his friends close to him.  It's an odd moment, and not one that sits comfortably with Jules and Dennis, or me the reader. 

It's only when Jules and Dennis buy the same camp they met at and run it for a year when she is in her 50's, that she comes to realize she can't buy her happiness back, and that she can't create it for anyone else.  The Interestings is really about how we make the story of our lives while we are living it.  And Jules, desperate to escape her boring suburban life as a teenager, only realizes long into adulthood how cruel she was to leave her mother and sister behind in her attempt to escape.  Jules really isn't that nice a person. 

This is the problem I have with modern fiction: it doesn't seem to know what story to tell about the times we are living in. There isn't a shape to our society any more.  The rules that could be broken, have been.  And so while The Interestings is interesting, enjoyable, funny and sad, and deeply involving in places, it also is superficial, too.  As a comment on modern life, this is how the novel works.  This is the times we live in.  Art is a by-product of luck, knowing the right people, and having a gift.  And hard work does not make up for not having a true talent. 

I recommend it, as a 4/5.   It's good, but not great. 

So what do you think?  Is the 100 Notable books of the year a worthy list?  Do you read many books off of it? 

 Hurray!!!! I read two books off the 2013 100 Notable books!!!!  Doctor Sleep by Stephen King is on it also!!!!!!! Ok, so maybe not all is lost for this list.  Maybe this was just a bad year for genre fiction....though, truly I do read genre fiction for the most part.  And I think the very best of sf, fantasy and mystery should be on the 100 Notable books of the year.  What do you think?  Why aren't they?  And Longbourn, which I will review!  That's three!  I won't review it today though.....it's late, and sleep beckons. 

Big breath:
I am a genre reader.  There!  I said it!  *whew*  the world didn't crumble, despite my English honours grad staring our the window, longing for some Hardy to match her mood of gloom.  On to my science fiction book In Conquest Born, which I am enjoying. 


Belle Wong said...

As a fellow English major, I am also proud to be a genre reader. I always have been, and always will be. I occasionally may find myself drawn to a literary book but not often. And I love Austen too - I went through a period from the time I was 17 until I was in my early 30s where I reread P&P every year. But mostly I love fantasy, mystery, science fiction and horror. I think more f them should be showing up in these Notable Books lists!

Susan said...

Belle: Ok, so we are both English majors. So why do you think we don't like literary fiction? I find this interesting and very happy to have met someone like you who is like me! One of my difficulties when I worked in bookstores here was that I was expected to read Canadian literature and literary fiction, most of which I loathe. Now Canadian fantasy and mystery fiction are some of the best in the world!! It is interesting, I think. I'm very happy you love the genres too :-)