My son will be two in June, and his favorite books include The Paperbag Princess, Eloise, and any story starring that lovable mouse Maisy. This is no accident; since our son was born, my husband and I have made sure he’s exposed to books about boys and girls. We also always recite the author’s name along with the title so that he understands that books are made by humans, male and female, for humans, male and female. We are feminists raising a boy who will become a man, and (we hope) a feminist and (we pray) a reader. If he reads diversely, he will not only have access to a wider and more complex world, but he’ll also read a shitload of great books. Plus, if he reads a lot of lady writers, he will — if he wants it — get so much more pussy. Let’s face it: nothing’s hotter than a man with an Emily Books subscription.
I myself try to read books by men and women in equal numbers. Yes, it’s true, I keep track of stuff like this; how else to hold myself and my reading proclivities accountable? I admit, though, had Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Interestings been written by a dude, I might have waited for it to come out in paperback. It’s just so…long. Like other women readers I know, I’m a little sick of the big literary book written by the big literary man. And maybe I’m resentful. My editor wanted to me cut about 20,000 words for my forthcoming novel California, which I did because the criticism was spot-on, the book was longer than it needed to be; still, I couldn’t help but wonder (aloud and all the time) if Eugenides, Franzen, and Harbach had also been edited for length. Thankfully, Meg Wolitzer is a woman, and after reading her famous and astute New York Times essay, “The Second Shelf,” about the ways books by women are marketed and treated by readers, I was happy to support her ambitious and, yes, long book. Sing it, sister!
In some ways, The Interestings reminds me of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s captivating (and big) novel A Fortunate Age, also about a group of friends in New York over a period of many years. The Interestings, though, covers even more time, introducing us to its characters when they’re teenagers at an arts summer camp in the 1970s and following them into their 50s. Though told in a sweeping and shifting third-person point of view, the novel is anchored by Jules Jacobson, one of six friends who ironically (and not-so-ironically) call themselves The Interestings that first year together at summer camp, when they’re young and brilliant and the world is theirs for the taking; the book follows them through marriage, parenthood, and (for one) even death. It’s a book about how talent develops, or withers, as people grow up. It’s also about intimacy and loyalty — in families, between friends, between spouses — and about money, jealousy, and comparing yourself to others as well as to a past version of yourself. Like many big books, it’s about the cruelty and solace of time’s passage.
I’d say Wolitzer has written “a novel of ideas” if said novel weren’t so engaging. (In my household, the phrase, “a novel of ideas,” is followed by an eye-roll. Such books are made for humorless people who don’t like television, candy, and/or dancing.) I read the book in four days, hushing anyone who tried to speak to me as I finished a paragraph or chapter, and laughing aloud at various cafes (yeah, I became that person). The pure enjoyment of reading The Interestings belies its skill and craft. The narrative perspective, authorial yet also intimate, is so nimble. Wolitzer is able to pull off that rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick of offering wise and assured narration, and then narrowing into a particular consciousness, as she does here:
Julie Jacobson, at the start of that first night, had not yet transformed into the far better sounding Jules Jacobson, a change that would deftly happen a little while later. As Julie, she’d always felt all wrong; she was gangling, and her skin went pink and patchy at the least provocation: if she got embarrassed, if she ate hot soup, if she stepped into the sun for half a minute.
The book also occasionally fast-forwards in time, and does it so deftly that I didn’t even notice it was happening until I was already inside of a new moment. Here is one example, regarding the brilliant cartoonist Ethan Figman:
Once, as Ethan bent the flexible straw, he became aware of the tiny little creak it made upon bending, and he filed away the idea, straw sound, for some future endeavor. “Straw sound! Straw sound!” the character Wally Figman demanded of his mother, who’d given him a glass of chocolate milk a few months later in a flashback to early childhood in one of the short Figland films. The noisy, brash cartoon soundtrack came to a halt while Wally’s mother bent the straw for her son, and the straw made that unmistakeable and somehow pleasurable squeaking creak.
Once Figland hit primetime, stoners watching the show would soon say to one another, “Straw sound, straw sound!” And someone might go into a kitchen, or even run out to a store, and bring back a box of Circus Flexi-Straws and bend straw after straw to hear that specific, inimitable sound, finding it unaccountably hilarious.
The novel’s narrative style complements its multi-character cast, and, like other recent books of this kind (Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins come to mind), it offers a multifaceted yet deeply imagined rendering of experience.
But what, exactly, makes it so readable? The Interestings, after all, relies on large swaths of exposition and summary to cover so much time, and if a writer isn’t careful, shifting characters can often slow down a story. Furthermore, the book reveals the outcome of certain characters’ lives early on; the novel isn’t initially told chronologically, and a lot is “given away” in the first 30 pages. How come I kept reading then? Wolitzer’s unpredictable structure and her modes of narration reminded me, as a writer and teacher of writing, that telling can and does create narrative propulsion, provided that the telling is specific and thoughtful, sensual and fluid. Zipping through juicy, character-deepening summary is one of reading’s big pleasures, and Wolitzer gets that. What she does choose to withhold from the reader, to be revealed in-scene, is significant. She dramatizes the conflict that corrodes this group of friends, and that makes all the difference.
(Also, Wolitzer writes terrific sex scenes, and that will always keep my interest. The phrase “stingy little anus” is magnificent, don’t you think?)
The book’s second half isn’t as strong as the first, maybe because Wolitzer has such a gift for exposition. As the novel hurtled toward September 11, 2001, I felt a familiarity to the events, and an awful sense that these sections were obligatory though not central to the story’s arc. Jules, Ethan, and the rest of the group continued to live their lives, one day unspooling into the next; time’s passage felt believable and moving, and yet not as electric as the first half of the book. When, fairly late in the novel, Jules and her husband return to the arts camp, to run it themselves, I was less interested in this plot-line, for whatever reason. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of the book didn’t disappear. I remained captivated. As I read its final lines, declarative and profound and true, I felt mournful. The book — this book! — was over. I closed the novel and wondered if I could write a book this big, this ballsy. I imagined Ms. Wolitzer behind an imposing mahogany desk, quill in hand. “Why not?” she said to me, and smiled. Yes, why not?
Maybe one day, when my son is an adult, I’ll force him to be in an intermittent book club with me. When it’s my turn to pick something, I’ll choose The Interestings.
Unless, of course, he’s already read it.
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
Year in Reading logo and graphics by Michael Barbetta
Joanna Smith Rakoff hasn’t had a Lillet in at least a year. Or so she says, after I point out that the drink enjoys a small but noteworthy role in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, about six young Oberlin College graduates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’re at Cafe Figaro, a French restaurant with red booths and cloudy mirrors down the block from Skylight Books. In a couple of hours, Rakoff will read there as part of her west coast paperback tour. Until then, she has agreed to share the pâté with me; we’ve already discussed an English professor we’re both still close to.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m proud to be part of the Oberlin Mafia (class of ’02 in the house!) I’m always updating my list of famous alumni–Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and Gary Shteyngart, to name a few–and if I see a car with an Oberlin bumper sticker, I will do a French Connection-style chase to get the driver’s attention. I enjoy telling my husband that my alma mater is way better than his; at the University of Chicago they built the atomic bomb; at Oberlin they built an Environmental Studies Center that runs on human waste. My four years at Oberlin made me the thinker I am today. It was only a matter of time before I read A Fortunate Age.
And yet, I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, and its connection to Oberlin was only nominally what I loved about it. For starters, it feels simultaneously contemporary, with its references to Cat Power, and its spot-on descriptions of Brooklyn at the turn of the twenty-first century, and also deliciously old-fashioned, as sprawling as Middlemarch and as readable as The Age of Innocence. Rakoff told me she was highly influenced by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, “the ultimate skewering of the middle class,” and A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell, which takes place on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. It’s one of Rakoff’s favorite novels. “What I love about it is that it’s very much about the cultural mood at the time, but the political goings-on, the historical backdrop, is woven in,” she says. “You see the way the forces of society and culture affect and influence these characters in a way that’s so subtle and wonderful.” Rakoff could very well be talking about her own novel, for it captures perfectly a particular time and place: New York from the late nineties tech boom, to the post-9/11 world of the new century. The characters are shaped by the city and this era, and as readers we pay witness to their evolutions. There’s a keen sense that this isn’t merely a personal drama about marriage, work, and making art, but also a book about what it means to exist in the world today. For instance, one character, Sadie Peregrine, isn’t just a mother of two, she is a mother of two in an increasingly frightening world:
Each day, some fresh horror arose: The train bombings in Madrid. The endless car bombings and suicide bombings in Iraq and Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, with their roster of civilian victims (children; always the children). The Vietnam-style rapes and massacres of Iraqi families–and the accompanying photos of the sweet-faced Virginia boys who’d perpetrated them. The kidnappings, all over the Middle East and North Africa, of journalists and contractors and translators. The beheadings–videotaped, aired on television–in Iraq. Everywhere, everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Typing this passage, I’m struck by how much darker it is than the opening of the novel, which begins with Lil’s wedding, four years after college graduation, its tone comic, almost jaunty. By the end of the novel, these characters have, without a doubt, reached adulthood, and it isn’t always a smooth transition.
Rakoff’s novel poses a central question: what do you hold onto from your idealistic youth, and what do you shed? In my mind, A Fortunate Age is a Post-Campus Novel: the campus, and what it signifies, has stayed with these characters, long after they’ve left it. For them, college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift. In writing A Fortunate Age, Joanna says, “I was thinking a lot about the ways that going to a liberal arts college—specifically Oberlin, but you could say the same for other colleges of its kind, shapes you.” She says:
These colleges are utopian environments, in a way that a lot of these larger universities are not. You are instilled with these wonderful values and a wonderful sense of yourself, particularly if you are in the arts. And then you go out into the world, and it can be crushing. Perhaps more so in New York than everywhere else, but to see how commerce is what drives everything.
Joanna is a fan of the campus novel, particularly David Lodge’s work. She says she wanted to write a contemporary comedy of manners, which is difficult to do nowadays, because, at least in the US, “social mores are all over the place.” She points out that campus novels are so appealing because they’re about a closed society with certain rules. And maybe that’s why, in the world of her book, there’s “a Whartonian element to keeping up socially.” Lil, Sadie, and the others, they’ve got to compromise, and make sacrifices, in order to stay afloat in their world. “It’s indicative of the time period I’m chronicling,” she says.
Because the novel shifts perspective between five of the six characters, we get to see these characters both from the outside, and the in. We also see them through each other’s eyes, which can be both illuminating and alienating–sometimes friends get you, and sometimes, they don’t even come close. As the reader, we get to know these characters quite deeply, but never all at once. After spending a chapter with one, the narrative alights its glance on another, and we don’t return to the original character’s point of view for some time, if at all. This technique requires us to supply the rest of their story. Is Beth happy with Will? Is Dave going to stay in the band? How do they really feel? One can imagine both a negative, and a positive outcome, usually a mingling of both. Joanna tells me this was part of her plan, based in on the structure of The Group by Mary McCarthy, which A Fortunate Age was inspired by:
What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse of a character—it’s kind of a Modernist project: to give you a glimpse of a character and then allow you to bore into that character’s head. I wanted each character to start off in an almost superficial way—see that character dealing with almost trite, gossipy things…their friends, their dress. As the chapter went on, I wanted to go deeper and deeper into their heads and see what their lives are like.
She is quick to point out, too, that the characters in her novel are affected by Oberlin in a totally different way than McCarthy’s characters are by Vassar. I asked Rakoff about one particular character in the novel, Caitlin, who also graduated from Oberlin with the others, but isn’t a friend of theirs–in fact, you might even describe her as a villain. We are never given access to her point of view. Caitlin wields a holier-than-thou attitude, and is blind to her own hypocritical behavior. “My initial draft of the book was more harsh and satirical with regard to all the characters, not just Caitlin,” Rakoff says. “Later drafts softened them, but not with Caitlin—and it’s not satirical license…I know people just like her. There’s always going to be that person who drinks the Kool-Aid, and it stays in her system. Part of Caitlin’s problem is that she’s so insecure and over confident, and she is trying so hard to be counter-cultural that she’s become dictatorial.”
I smile because I’ve too met people similar to Caitlin, though fewer and fewer with each year away from college. I ask Joanna about the choice to write about people in their twenties. Joanna laughs, and tells me about a friend who tried to convince her not to write the book. Her friend said she didn’t want to read about young people in New York. “I am that person!” she said. For a time, Joanna heeded her advice, until she couldn’t any longer. She wanted to tell this story.
[As a reviewer] I was doing this really heavy volume of reading, and I would get these novels about young women, usually in NY. They were just ridiculous. They were all about buying…Prada shoes, Gucci bags. I don’t know anyone whose life is like that. I don’t know anyone who really lives like this. I kept waiting for that novel to come my way, that was going to be about people I knew, and it never came.
A Fortunate Age isn’t about people I know–not exactly–but the lives explored therein are nevertheless rich and complicated, sometimes absurd, sometimes appalling, sometimes beautiful. It felt true to me. I’m glad Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote this book into existence. I can now add her to my illustrious list of alumni.