Using summer camp as a plot device to bring characters in a novel together isn’t necessarily a new idea, but few if any authors have done the intense treatment on what happens to a group of camp friends after they leave that Meg Wolitzer has in her novel The Interestings.
When I first heard about the Wolitzer’s book, I wasn’t sure how relevant it would even be to the world of pop culture summer camp references I frequent on this blog. Would it be introductory material like in the otherwise unwatchable movie No Strings Attached? Or would there still be some relevance to Spirit-In-the-Woods, the fictional camp where they all meet as teenagers, 400 pages in?
Since it’s release the book has generated a healthy enough buzz to frequent my Google Alerts with praiseworthy language and for good reason. Wolitzer hasn’t just written a fine book about the summer camp experience and its lifelong impact on those who attend; she’s managed to introduce you to a cast of characters far more interesting than anything you’ll find in one of those so-called summer blockbusters.
The Interestings opens at Spirit-In-the-Woods in 1974 when “the interestings” meet, sneaking away into a tepee cabin to smoke pot and contemplate their place in the universe. The awkward outsider of the bunch is Julie Jacobson, an aspiring comedic actress who questions her inclusion in the group at all. She serves as a kind of tour guide into a coterie of teenagers who unlike her all live in the city and are considered remarkable in some way by many of their peers. The group includes a famous cartoonist to be, the son of an already famous folk musician, attractive siblings from a family of privilege, a talented dancer and the quickly renamed “Jules” Jacobson.
Through four decades we follow Jules and her group of friends from Spirit-in-the-Woods to college, careers, marriages, court cases, family losses, relationship struggles, parenthood and return on more than one occasion to the place where it all began. More than a way to introduce the bond of the characters, Spirit-in-the-Woods serves as the spiritual thread that ties their dreams, triumphs and disappointments together.
Through the characters we get a glimpse of a religious cult, a high profile rape case, the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community of the ’80s, the rise of a Simpsons-esque animated sitcom, the struggle to run a therapy practice with the advent of managed care, how mental illness can affect a marriage, child labor, parenting a child with autism and a vast range of other topics are explored.
There are also several moments anyone involved in the summer camp industry will appreciate, particularly when one of the characters returns to Spirit-in-the-Woods to take over day-to-day operations from the aging owners and is faced with questions about how to stem the tide of decreasing enrollments and the competition from more sophisticated and less traditional art camps.
Since I’m naturally a nostalgic person, I ate up the thick serving contained in the sweeping timeline of the book. Some patience is required for the reader since the book is long on character development/word count and slow in its unraveling of action-packed plot twists or mysteries.
In between dramatic bits is the stuff of life, the moments that would be the first to go in an adapted screenplay but that add to the authenticity of the narrative and the realization that what makes the characters interesting, self-absorbed and pretentious as they sometimes seem, is what makes all of us interesting in our own right. When the characters are jealous or disappointed, struck with grief or slowly losing their mind, it’s hard not to feel something because whether we were born in the ’60s and attended an artsy summer camp or not, we are shaped by the experiences we have, the choices we make and the bonds we form.
I don’t have a specific group of friends I met when I was a teenager at camp, but I do have friends I met at camp with whom I will forever have a unique bond. In the nostalgia of my own life I look at those friendships and those experiences at camp as a critical moment when my creativity, values, intellect and faith were shaped and molded. I didn’t go to an art camp or smoke pot in a tepee with privileged kids from New York City but the boost of self esteem I received from the counselors and friends at camp gave me the kind of self esteem boost I needed (especially in middle school) to enter adulthood with a positive outlook and a determined spirit.
Friendships from camp, like ones made in other stopovers in my life, are mostly of the Facebook variety but the memories, like those shared by characters like Ethan Figman in the book’s bittersweet ending, are unbreakable.