AT an arts camp in the Berkshires where the kids wake up every morning to Haydn's Surprise Symphony, six teens drink vodka and Tang and proclaim that "Gunter Grass is basically God."
In 1974, the same summer that Nixon is "lifted off the White House lawn like a rotten piece of outdoor furniture," this gifted group discovers irony and, half-ironically, dubs itself "the Interestings."
It says something about American novelist Meg Wolitzer's acute eye and emotional reach that she can gently spoof these pretentious, wonderfully self-involved adolescents while getting straight to their solitary and insecure hearts. Following her characters through a 40-year time span, watching their "specialness" wear away under the choices and compromises of middle age, Wolitzer (The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position), she produces an ambitious and intimate work.
The Interestings has drawn deserved comparisons to the work of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen. It charts seven central characters; the focus is on Jules, a frizz-haired suburban scholarship girl who reinvents herself that summer. Jules becomes entwined with golden girl Ash and her glamorous Upper West Side existence, and is drawn to Ash's arrogant brother, Goodman. Meanwhile, the sweet, homely Ethan pines after Jules, but unexpectedly ends up marrying Ash.
At first the friends seem to be in lockstep, pursuing their artistic dreams, living in walk-up apartments and eating cheap Chinese take-out in picturesque youthful poverty. But their lives diverge when Ethan's cartooning genius, aided by the money and connections of Ash's family, leads to a hit animated TV show.
Jules, aware that she has a little talent but not enough, settles into a career as a clinical social worker and marries rock-solid Dennis.
Increasingly, Ethan and Ash find their creative paths smoothed and soothed by extraordinary wealth, while Jules and Dennis struggle with chronic debt, job worries, and the everyday exhaustion of shlepping a baby stroller up four flights of stairs.
In the funniest chapter of what is often a laugh-out-loud funny book, Jules braces herself to read Ethan and Ash's annual Christmas letter, which lists the family's achievements, from Ash's experimental staging of The Trojan Women to the worthy work of their anti-poverty foundation in Indonesia. (Jules imagines Ash and Ethan writing it together, "at either side of a desk that had once been a redwood tree or a giant geode.")
Wolitzer could have gone for broad social satire by making Ash and Ethan ghastly rich people, but she takes the more generous route of making them decent human beings and genuinely good friends. Consequently, Jules' feelings -- and probably the reader's -- are a messy admixture of affection, envy and resentment.
Wolitzer deftly layers personal and social histories, and moves easily back and forth in her chronology, connecting the precocious teenagers with the grown-ups they become. She also chronicles the changing moods of New York City, moving through the overheated '80s, with their trendy restaurants and "drizzled-plate dinners," the AIDS crisis, the trauma of 9/11 and the recession.
Wolitzer examines love, sex and friendship with wit and uncommon emotional warmth. But this is also a Big Ideas novel, which explores the complex connections among money, fame, art and social status.
Ultimately, the novel suggests that success might not be what those kids imagined it to be, in their brief, radiant incarnation as The Interestings. And that's probably a good thing.
Alison Gillmor is a Winnipeg journalist.
By Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Books, 486 pages, $29.50