The lessons that Jules Jacobson learns in The Interestings, a new novel by Meg Wolitzer, are the life lessons that all 60 somethings (and everyone else) must learn eventually.
Fifteen year old Jules finds a group of six friends at camp who make her feel special by association: a group who personify talent, confidence, sophistication, intelligence, and moxie. They call themselves the “Interestings.” For the rest of her life she measures her own achievements against theirs’ and comes up short. She simply doesn’t register her friends’ set- backs, and personal pain, the way she does their monetary success and status. She doesn’t acknowledge, until the end, how everyone’s life really is a mixed bag. Her husband, Dennis, doesn’t worry about being special, though. He finds satisfaction in stoking the fire of his own small affinity for sonography. “Specialness- everyone wants it. Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do- kill themselves?”
By our sixties, most of us have had our share of successes and triumphs, disappointments and failures. And so has everyone else. Some of the people we know, or work with, or love are more talented, more beautiful, smarter, braver. But life happens to all of them “special” or not, talented, or not, sooner or later…. and to us, as well.
It seems to me that retirement sort of levels the playing field. Whether you were a doctor, a plumber, a secretary, or a professor, old successes are old news. Common interests in politics, the community, the arts, animals, travel, sports, physical fitness inform new bonds and conversations. There’s more time to be special in the Fred Rogers sense.
Fred Rogers had the right idea about the meaning of “special.” When he called his listeners “special,” he didn’t mean that they should consider themselves better than other people, more deserving of resources, accolades or riches. He meant that all of our lives are unique templates for both the ordinary and extraordinary.
“Some days, doing the best we can may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect – on any front – and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.”-Mister Rogers
“Nobody else can live the life you live. And even though no human being is perfect, we always have the chance to bring what’s unique about us to life in a redeeming act.”-Mister Rogers
In The Interestings, Jules learns to “see happiness not as getting what [she] thought she wanted but wanting what [she] wound up having- a definition in which succeeding doesn’t require exceeding.” -Liesel Schillinger, The New York Times
An engaging novel: endearing characters, an attention-holding narrative, a simple, but profound message. The perfect summer read.