We review The Interestings and Commencement, and look at the ways they treat their women protagonists’ career-arcs
One of my favourite literary tropes is that of a “group of friends growing up”. And I was fortunate enough to read two books subverting the same in the last couple of months.
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings starts off in a Summer Arts Camp, where everyone is young and consumed by his or her importance in the way of the very young (No one above 20 would ever call their friends’ group The Interestings); and then looks into their lives for the next few decades, as they get pulled together and apart and go on to forge their own identities. The characters include Ethan Figman- a genius animator and artist who has always been comfortable in his skin, Julie- who stands apart from the rest of the group with her middle class suburban background, Ash Wolf- a perfectly luminescent and talented WASP-ish debutante, Gordon- her charismatic brother, and Jonah- the son of a fading folk singer.
The most interesting narrative of the book is the diverging career paths that Julie and Ash take as they grow older. It becomes apparent over time that both the women are talented, but perhaps not in the ways that their youth led them to believe. Ash, always beautiful, has been brought up to believe she is special. She is also suitably ensconced by the ballast of first her parents’ and then her husbands’ money. This encouragement and security blanket gives her the freedom to find her voice, and become something as esoteric and specialised as a women’s theatre director who gets politely positive reviews in the New York Times. The novel doesn’t dismiss her achievements, but makes it apparent that her lofty goals were aided by her circumstances.
Jules, on the other hand, has the gift of empathy and of making people laugh. She begins her professional life wanting to be a character actor (a leading actress’ best friend type), but fails miserably once she discovers how many other women harbor such dreams and ambitions. She ‘settles’ in a way, as a middling psychiatrist, in a comfortably middle-class existence but always looks up at her friends – the fellow Interestings – with a tinge of envy. Once again, the author doesn’t treat her as an object of pity, just hinting that sometimes what makes you special may not be your vocation or your professional success.
It is rare that writers address the question of women and their careers in the twenty first century, and Wolitzer does it with such mastery and wit (really, how many of the “I just want to make pretty cupcakes” women you know would be able to do so without an entire structure to lean into; so to speak); that we’d highly recommend this book to anyone who spends their nights thinking about the meaning of true feminism, and the compromises we make in the name of art and family and love.
I wanted to read J Courtney Sullivan’s The Commencement for the longest time because its synopsis sounded close to home. It is a book about four girls in all-girls campus and the different ways that being in such an institution for the formative years shapes their lives.
It was a story that I identified with in many ways –the sudden emergence and formation of an idealism, the opening up of ones’ eyes to so many ‘woman’s issues’, the sort of boy-crazy madness that hits these women when they meet men, the very strong and cohesive women friendships, and the wrestling for the rest of your life between what you wanted to be at college and what you are now.
But what disappointed me were the careers of the women once they walked out of Smiths. The most plausible of the lot was Celia- and her stumbling along from one low paying job to another- as she lived the single life in New York. But what about Bree, who has the luxury to leave her high-paying job as a lawyer as she sorts out her relationship woes, when earlier, she was defined by her ambition? Or April, whose defence of her ideals is derided as her dabbling with militant radicalism? Couldn’t a character in a novel be feminist and not deluded at the same time? It is almost as if book is saying that look it’s ok to make compromises- you’re a woman, that’s what works for you.
So much else of the book is so beautiful and sharply observed, that the lack of attention paid to the women’s careers hits especially hard. And just for that , the book is an almost-but-not-quite for us. Do read it to remember your college days, but don’t look at it for any kind of inspiration for what happens after the Commencement.