When a Woman Finds Her Voice

The Female Persuasion

By Meg Wolitzer

As with her very good previous novel, The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer builds her new novel  around people, four of them, moving through life and a few themes, among them inspiration, mentorship, betrayal, disillusionment, and reconciliation.

Of the four characters—Greer, Faith, Zee, and Cory, Greer proves the most interesting and relatable. The most compelling relation is that of Greer, the maturing young woman, with Faith, the established and much admired feminist leader. Here, Wolitzer addresses the power an inspiring leader can exert over a young, quiet woman (or man) without much self-direction, a soul flailing about. Also, in this relationship, Wolitzer shows how one woman can mentor another and help her grow and make a difference in the world. Perhaps more important, is showing how a leader leads by example. The path here, however, isn’t straight and without challenges, as someone like Greer can find herself the thrall of her guide, willing to compromise herself in small ways, until at some point she finds something big that feels like betrayal, and that reminds her in vivid terms of her own betrayal of close friends.

Faith, whom Greer meets at a speaking engagement sponsored by her college, strikes you from the beginning as an inspirational leader. Though you know nobody can go as far in life as Faith has looking beautiful and well turned out without some compromises, still, like Greer, you feel the strength of the fealty she receives from those in her sphere. As Greer learns very dramatically and bitterly, confronting the admired’s flaws can be shattering and change the course of your life.

Disillusionment, though, can strike in other ways. Zee, for example, has accomplished parents, two judges, who expect a certain conventionality from her. In the Greer-Zee college friendship, Zee is the radical firebrand. She’s the one who wants to be the radical feminist, to make the most impact and difference. She’s the one who insists on Greer attending Faith’s college appearance, who encourages Greer to ask her question, who hopes later to work with Faith through Greer’s intercession. Though it doesn’t work out, Zee gets her chance to make a difference, but not in the way she expected.

For Cory, a wunderkind, not to mention tall and good looking, life goes along very well, until tragedy overwhelms him. He and Greer become a couple their senior year in high school. Both extremely bright and hardworking, they apply to the Ivies, and, as hoped, Yale accepts both of them. However, through a misunderstanding related to her parents, she can’t attend Yale, and has to settle for a small second-tier school. That frees Cory to accept a free ride to Princeton, develop a new business idea with friends, and go into the consulting world, as do his friend, to earn funds to transform the idea into reality. The tragedy prevents this from happening and throws Cory into a tailspin for years. Readers may have mixed feelings about Cory related to his choices and to him as a character late in the novel revolving around strength or weakness of resolve, especially measured against the male stereotype (of which VC magnate Emmett Shrader stands as prime example).

In Wolitzer fashion, the lives of these characters weave in and out of the story, with each receiving chapters devoted to them, chapters in which incidents reappear viewed from each’s vantage point. In the end, things turn out as most expect them to, though with Wolitzer the journey is the whole point. Maybe not as good as The Interestings, but nonetheless a top-notch read for both genders. w/c

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The Fate of Interesting People

The Interestings

By Meg Wolitzer

Probably most of us of a certain age and background have never been to an away summer camp for an entire summer. What a magical experience it appears: to meet new people; to be seen differently; to see yourself differently; to see new possibilities for yourself; and to establish friendships that survive for a lifetime. So, from the outset, Meg Wolitzer’s novel of friendship, love, and, as is often the case with life, disappointment, captivates from the beginning. From start to poignant conclusion, you’ll find it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Succinctly, the novel maps the lives of adolescents who meet at the Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp and dub themselves The Interestings, because that’s how they see each other. The main characters who form the core of the novel, the people you’ll find yourself caring most about, are the “poor” girl from Long Island, Julie Jacobson, who gets renamed Jules and discovers a new, unimagined potential for her life; Ash Wolf, a girl possessing ephemeral beauty and theatrical ambitions; and Ethan Figman, a gnome of a fellow from a difficult home that he copes with using an enormous talent for animation. Supporting characters who comprise the rest of the group include Ash’s attractive but irresponsible brother Goodman; Cathy Kiplinger, a girl physically mature for her age who desires a dancing career; and Jonah Bay, whose mother Susannah is a famous but fading folk star. There are numerous others, parents, husbands, other friends, abusers, children, pretty much everything real life tosses your way from childhood to the doorstep of old age. But these are the three who get the most page time and the three you’ll care most about, and who provide quite an emotional ending.

As you might guess, life does not work out as any of the three and the others had hoped in summer camp, not just professionally, but personally and emotionally, too. Life has a way of surprising us. Some surprises are good, though usually mixed with troubles. Other surprises are not so good, and some horrible. So it is for The Interestings, a long and winding road that doesn’t always cooperate in fulfilling dreams, but that cannot destroy what holds Jules, Ash, and Ethan together: their friendship with and love for each other, not even, in the end, death.

This friendship among the three principals is not without some huge challenges of the sort that end not only friendships but marriages, too. If you’ve ever felt envy for a friend who has achieved something you yourself has wanted and striven for, you’ll immediately identify with Jules. And, if you’ve loved unreturned, and nurtured that unrequited love over a lifetime, you’ll understand Ethan’s feelings, while also experiencing the ending more deeply.

Recommended as an engaging journey through interesting lives, and for Wolitzer’s skillfulness in blending the story into the issues of the last quarter of the 20th century, and for making the lives of her people feel real.

If you’re old enough, Wolitzer’s novel, especially the opening in a summer camp, will immediately bring to mind the wonderful Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. Wouk, now in his hundreds and still writing, is a master storyteller and Marjorie Morningstar is among his most popular novels. Like Jules, Marjorie Morgenstern aspires to a life in the theater. She falls madly for Noel Airman, pursues him, while maintaining a friendship with the man who really loves her, Wally Wronken. You might enjoy it.

Coming shortly, our review of Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasionw/c

Do You Believe in Cheater Love?

The Arrangement

By Sarah Dunn

Hand it to Sarah Dunn. She knows how to grab your attention and hold it, whether you are on a beach or flying to one. The Arrangement deals in fantasy, the fantasy some couples may have after five, ten years of marriage, and kids, and responsibilities. What would it be like to shuck all that, to feel like a newly minted twenty-something, to be truly and passionately (as in sexually passionate) in love? Here’s one version, courtesy of Dunn, albeit laced with a strong cautionary. People, it seems, have other emotions in addition to love and these can be ugly and rear their heads to make the whole affair rather unpleasant.

Owen and Lucy have been married a while. They have traded their life in Brooklyn for the bucolic, and more affordable, life in Beekman, NY (ah, yes, know it well; went to Sylvan Lake, next door to Beekman, to swim as a youth). They try hard to have a child, eventually go the IVF route. Wyatt, their son, appears to be autistic and quite a handful. You can appreciate how the couple might like to have a break from the daily, trying routine. At a patio dinner with friends from the city, they learn about a married couple, gay men with children, who are experimenting with a six-month arrangement, complete with rules, allowing each to seek sex elsewhere.

It isn’t long before Owen and Lucy decide to give it a try. Owen hooks up first and quickly with Izzy, who turns possessive and hounding. Lucy’s friend Sally Bang, the only really interesting name in the book, puts Lucy in touch with a divorced acquaintance, Ben. He turns out to be something of an emotional dream. Owen is harassed; Lucy is in love. (Male readers may ask why Owen gets the nut and Lucy the bliss? Duh, how dense you are, sir.) You’ll never guess? You guessed, the landing is hard for both and their marriage.

Dunn tosses in a couple of other stories that only tangentially link to the main plot. There’s the kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell, who decides to transform into Mrs. Lowell. Consequences follow, but many readers will wonder where the heck do you even find a male kindergarten teacher? The other concerns billionaire Gordon Allen and his wife, his fourth, a former cocktail waitress, whom he married spontaneously, so quick that he plumb forgot to have her sign a prenup. Talk about fantasy! Perhaps there are lessons in these tangents? The Lowell’s marriage appears to not just survive the change but flourish, whereas Gordon’s does what you’d expect, except for something of a novel reason.

Not to be too hard on the novel, because Dunn never intended it to be deathless prose, it’s perfect for the summer. It moves as quick as a summer thunderstorm. It often is hilarious, at least in the first half. And for those with thoughts of straying, of testing if the grass is indeed greener on the other side, of harboring any ideas of a similar arrangement, it is a kernel of reality. w/c

Free Love and Angst in the 1970s

The Nakeds

By Lisa Glatt

A young man lost in life, Martin Kettle, drives drunk and recklessly after a binge and hits a child, Hannah Teller, going to school. Instead of stopping, he speeds away, leaving the six-year-old severely injured in the street.

And so begins Lisa Glatt’s very good novel of adjusting and coping with crippling life events: Martin’s guilt about deserting the scene; Hannah’s years of medical treatment to regain the use of her leg; and her parents’, Asher’s and Nina’s, divorce and their respective remarriages to Christy and Azeem.

While economical novel, Glatt manages to blend into the mix of family challenges many of the societal changes of the 70s, primary among them the sexual revolution in the form of Azeem’s interest in nudist living and open marriage. She provides insights into handling cultural differences, these being Asher’s remarriage to a devoted Christian and his conversion from Judaism and his proselytizing of his new religious affiliation, and Nina’s remarriage to a younger man, a transplanted Arab, and a psychology student specializing in sex.

Add to the mix Hannah’s long suffering with doctor after doctor making promises they can’t keep regarding her mangled leg and her growth into a young woman wishing for a normal life, as well as Martin’s tortured life harboring a secret he can’t bear to face and can’t bring himself to share in any redemptive way–well, you have all the ingredients for quite a pot boiler.

To Glatt’s credit, her understated and sympathetic tone keep the novel on the high road at all times. She creates compelling forward force by sustaining our hope life will work out for Hannah and Martin will find peace in the truth. Glatt fulfills some of a reader’s desire but not every one in these regards. It’s a novel that deserves a wider readership. w/c