I am a total fanboy of Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, as evidenced by the review I wrote back then. And while I can readily admit that The Interestings is not without flaws, I’m still dazzled by what it achieved: an astonishingly true-to-life examination of how a group of friends progresses over time.
The Female Persuasion‘s publication was like an event for me. I snagged a copy from the library very close to the publication date and immediately dove in. But two weeks later, when the book was due, I had only progressed roughly fifty pages. I kept the book another few days but despite the urgency to return it, I only progressed another twenty pages. So I gave up and returned it.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was so difficult for me to get into this book at the time. All I knew was that I couldn’t get passed Wolitzer’s tendency to describe things in an odd way (this was one of the flaws of The Interestings, but I was able to overlook it there). It’s almost as though Wolitzer is trying so hard to describe things in an interesting way that it ends up coming across as contrived. Like when Greer, our narrator, describes the smell in a room by using the chemical name for movie theater butter, then awkwardly defining what that is for the reader, instead of simply saying it smelled like movie theater popcorn and moving on. You could argue that this overly-complicated description is indicative of Greer’s need to impress people when she arrives at college, but it seems quite clear that it’s actually a tic of Wolitzer’s that she’s unable to suppress.
Furthermore, I just wasn’t very into the story of Greer and her boyfriend, Cory. And as much as Wolitzer works to show you that famed feminist Faith Frank takes an inexplicable liking to Greer after speaking at Greer’s college precisely because Greer’s awkwardness has a sort of introspective honesty and curiosity at its core, it still feels contrived–which is not something I would say about The Interestings.
A few months later, I decided to try again, but on audio this time–figuring that listening might help me get by some of the things I was struggling with. I was right at first. I breezed through the first half of the book and the parts that center on Greer and Cory. But then the focus shifted again and Greer’s friend Zee picked up the narrative. It felt overwhelmingly like the book was attempting to start over again, which set me to despairing. When the focus shifted to Cory, his story had been so tied to Greer’s that you were able to pick it up without going backward. But with Zee, Wolitzer has to go back to tell you all about her life since Zee has mostly been tangential to the plot up to this point. And so I lost all momentum and interest. Again.
I checked in with a friend and she informed me that this basically happens two more times in the book as we get sections centered on Faith Frank and a venture capitalist. The Interestings also follows multiple characters, but since they all start from the same point the narrative progresses linearly–without stopping and starting again.
Thinking about why I was so frustrated with the story, it occurred to me that Greer is basically a cheap imitation of Jules from The Interestings. Both start out insecure, directionless girls with complicated families and progress from there. It then further occurred to me that The Female Persuasion is essentially the same book as The Interestings except less, well, interesting. I was struggling so hard because I felt like I had already read it. Surely, a lot of authors tend to cover similar ground in their novels (Jonathan Franzen and Tom Perrotta come to mind), but usually there’s enough of a twist to make it feel fresh. When there isn’t, you end up with the absolutely dreadful Mrs. Fletcher.
Part of me wants to finish The Female Persuasion to see where it goes, but I think this is mostly out of a sense of obligation. In truth, I’m just not interested in discovering if the third time is the charm.