A little talent is a dangerous thing. Meg Wolitzer examines the implications of that sad truth in her latest work, a sprawling, marvelously inventive novel that tracks the friendships over nearly four decades of six teenagers who meet in the summer of 1974 at an arts camp in Massachusetts.
At the center of the book is Julie Jacobson, a gawky but fundamentally good kid from suburban Long Island who emerges from the grief of losing a parent and discovers a gift for comic acting during that long ago mythic summer.
The agents of her transformation are five more sophisticated kids from New York City who dub her "Jules" - a cool nickname that sticks for life - and teach her the art of ironic observation. During a pot- and vodka-fueled conversation in a tepee in the opening scene, they ironically christen themselves "the Interestings" so, as one of them says, "the world can know just how unbelievably interesting we are."
Wolitzer's vivid characters include a boy-genius cartoonist who becomes unimaginably wealthy after creating a long-running TV show; a handsome, predatory youth named Goodman Wolf (perhaps better named Wolfman) and his sensitive, beautiful sister, Ash; a physically precocious dancer who reinvents herself as a Wall Street CEO after a life-shattering event; and a gifted musician whose life is nearly destroyed when he is cruelly exploited by a friend of his famous folk singer-mother.
New York City, whose relentless gentrification from the late "70s through the 2000s serves as a backdrop for most of the action, becomes something of a seventh character in the ensemble cast.
Wolitzer captures with almost unerring accuracy both the rhythms of conversation and the customs of urban life among this upwardly aspiring, artistically inclined collection of Manhattanites.
The chicken Marbella recipe from "The Silver Palate Cookbook" makes a guest appearance, as does Jules' neighborhood takeout Vietnamese restaurant, which serves as a soothing presence during a long stretch of her challenging marriage to a fundamentally nice guy from New Jersey who was never lucky or cursed enough to spend a few summers, as she did, with a bunch of talented, self-absorbed kids from the city.
Years from now, when readers are curious what it was like to be a member of the creative class in New York in the decades just before and after the dawn of the 21st century, they'll do well to pick up this ambitious and enormously entertaining coming-of-age story.