"P" is for polka dots. And also Pee-wee Herman. Who would be proud, I like to think, to be linked to these quirky cute kicks. Not that he's done us proud since he last sat on Chairy. But such is the way of TV folk.
Stars take center stage in this week's necklaces and ensembles. It's no wonder that these space-age shapes have appeared so prominently in our decor in one form or another since, well, the big bang. Everyone, it seems, wants to follow, wish upon, or become a star. Our society celebrates superstars, star-crossed lovers, star witnesses, and, once upon a time, Star Jones (even I wasn't immune, having owned not one but two pairs of pumps from her Payless line). So it makes sense that so many people strive to see their names in lights. Such was certainly the case for the characters in Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, a novel that explores and questions the demands of stardom.
In the interest of full disclosure, for me this began as a "broccoli book." You know. Hard to get through but more intrinsically valuable than, say, a Popsicle (which was unexpected, what with the cover boasting Popsicle colors). It was slow and plodding until the halfway point, then somehow snookered me into being unable to put it down. That said, maybe it's more of a veggie-dessert hybrid. Although not one of those dreaded kale shakes; that albatross seems more appropriate to symbolize something truly atrocious, like a treatise on manufacturing beeswax.
A saga that starts in 1974, The Interestings (ahem) stars awkward, frizzy-haired Julie "Jules" Jacobson, who is shipped off to the arts camp Spirit in the Woods on scholarship the summer after her father dies. Shy and insecure, she hails from Long Island instead of New York City, and her family doesn't have much money. So she's dazzled one night when beautiful and popular Ash Wolf handpicks her to hang out with her and her friends in the boys' tepee. In the way of self-important adolescents, the six fifteen-year-olds (three boys and three girls) bond over books, parents, and aspirations, deciding to name themselves "The Interestings," secure in their belief that such an illustrious label will guarantee them glittering futures. Julie, to her surprise and delight, cracks everyone up, immediately becoming "the funny one," a role that's sealed when Ash casually calls out, ' "Go, Jules!" ' (16) instead of "Go, Julie!" Eager to accelerate her diamond-in-the-rough transformation, Jules is taken aback when an odd boy from their group, Ethan Figman, invites her to see his cartoons. Described as "unusually ugly," Ethan has one of those faces that only a mother can love -- except for his, apparently, as she ran off with his pediatrician. It was the pain of his parents' tempestuous marriage that drove Ethan to create Figland, a cartoon about an imaginary world discovered by an unhappy outsider much like himself. Ethan is instantly smitten with Jules; she gets him and his art and is "one of his kind" as INXS would put to song thirteen years later. And so he tries to kiss her. But she, overcome by his mushroom smell and strangeness, recoils, establishing the first bittersweet bookend of this stirring story.
In the decades that follow, the Interestings are obsessed with making a living as artists, never considering that their art can be something they do just for themselves -- until it's almost too late. Jules, who longs to be a comic actress, the kind of quirky friend character who never gets the guy but rattles off strings of memorable one-liners, is dismayed to find that lots of other twentysomething women in New York City want that, too -- and that they're much better at it. Yet it isn't until her acting teacher gives her a tough love speech that she questions her path:
' " We are all here on this earth for only one go-around. And everyone thinks their purpose is just to find their passion. But perhaps our purpose is also to find out what other people need. And maybe the world does not actually need to see you, my dear, reciting a tired old monologue from the Samuel French collection or pretending to be drunk and staggering around. Has that ever occurred to you?" ' (233).
Jules promptly quits acting, enrolls in graduate school, and becomes a therapist, a grueling and low-paying, albeit ultimately rewarding profession. Romantically, her life follows another unlikely trajectory when she marries Dennis, an unartistic but kindly ultrasound technician who plays touch football on the weekends -- and who, incidentally, suffered a nervous breakdown in college. Stranger still, a tragedy involving Ash's brother and fellow Interesting leads to marriage for Ash and Ethan. Ash's beauty and social connections add polish to Ethan's ragtag art kid persona, and Ethan's unequivocal genius lends depth and, eventually, financial support to Ash's earnest but unremarkable efforts as a feminist theater director. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, not unlike Jules and Dennis's therapist-patient dynamic -- although it's usually clinically depressed Dennis who provides emotional support for the increasingly bitter and unbalanced Jules -- raising the question of what it means to be soulmates. Although the two couples remain close into middle age, the friendship is difficult for Jules, who envies Ash and Ethan's success, and for Dennis, who, however quietly, resents the bond between Jules and Ethan.
Although the novel is billed to be about friendship and art, its true message, like that of so many other novels, is the value in living an honest and ordinary life. Wolitzer shows this partly through Jules's, Ash's, and Ethan's attitudes about art, but mostly through the love triangle that stretches between them. Unforgiving in its angles, it leaves betrayal, unrequited love, and, for one unlucky lover, even death in its wake. But in doing so, it reveals true love and happiness for the enlightened, if battle-scarred survivors, proving, once and for all, that it's only trouble that is interesting.
Contradictory to the title of this post, I'm not a big fan of flying. But I would like to see the West. I've never been unless you count a layover in Phoenix, which I do not, even if I do have the refrigerator magnet to prove it. One thing I do like to do on an airplane is read, though. It's as good a way as any to forget your troubles when you're helplessly airborne. And, of course, when you're helplessly back on terra firma, too.
Speaking of reading, I got more than I bargained for at the dollar store when I picked up Peggy Webb's Elvis and the Grateful Dead recently. Now, about 90% of the dollar store books I've read are weird, and I always find myself wondering if I think this just because they landed at the dollar store, or because they are, in fact, a little bit off. Weird or not, I could immediately tell that Webb's tale was one of the tribe of quirky cozy mysteries that I hold so dear. It turned out to be about two crime-solving cousins from Mississippi, Callie and Lovie, and Callie's basset hound Elvis, a canine convinced he's the King reincarnated. (Okay, so they're southern, not southwestern, which would be far more in keeping with the theme of this post. But Lovie does wear cowboy boots, most often with peasant skirts. And Callie, when pressed about her feelings for her not-quite-ex-husband, can be as prickly as our friend Mr. Cactus.) Fueled by sweet tea and ire, the twosome sets out to find the killer of not one but three -- what else? -- Elvis impersonators. Now, the mystery part isn't all that intriguing -- most cozies worth their sugar offer up a respectable-enough "wow!" or even "hey, I knew that," factor when all is said and done plot-wise. But this one makes little more than a lackluster attempt to tie things up lickety-split in the whodunit department. Nevertheless, considering that I'm no fan of hounds (Elvis included, even if it is blasphemy to say so below the Mason-Dixon line), it may come as a surprise that I rather enjoyed this outlandish adventure (or, on second thought, maybe it's not such a surprise, as I often end up enjoying books I profess to hate). After all, I don't read this stuff for the crimes -- I read it for the colorful characters. And they don't come much more rainbowed than a fast-and-loose foodie (that would be Lovie) and her baby-crazy cat lady of a cousin (Callie). Even if Callie is a bit of a shoe snob. She wears only designer and looks down on anyone who doesn't, so much so that a would-be black widow's culpability hinges, albeit presumably, upon her penchant for bargain basement kicks (kind of ironic, seeing as how I fished this book out of a bargain bin, but I digress). As ever, the sartorially suspect are guilty of -- or at least suspected of being guilty of -- more than mere crimes of fashion. But I was willing to overlook this character flaw in the name of fiction, remembering that snobs are people, too. Which is just one more way, I guess, that books help make us better people.
That having been said, happy trails to you . . . until we read again.