Getting It Wrong to Get It Right

Christmas Critics

No one says growing up is easy, and four of the novels I’ve read this year reiterate just how challenging the journey from youth (or youthfulness) to maturity can be. More than mere coming-of-age tales, these books also manage to situate often painful emotional experiences within the context of larger societal concerns.

When, in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (Riverhead, $27.95, 480 pp.), protagonist Julie Jacobson is initiated into the most intriguing group of summer campers at Spirit-in-the-Woods, she finds a way to escape her mundane suburban routine and forge relationships lasting far beyond the summer. Rechristened “Jules,” she goes on to become a social worker and marries a sonogram technician, while remaining close with troubled best friend Ash and the wildly successful Ethan. But the passage of years prompts self-examination and reevaluation of those friendships: Is what I’m giving, Jules begins to wonder, worth what I’m getting in return?

The complex economies of lifelong friendships isn’t Wolitzer’s only subject in this novel, her best to date. She also examines the difference between espousing principles and actually applying them, and the challenge of converting creative impulses into meaningful artistic endeavor. And in its detailed portrait of the decades-long friendship between Jules and Ethan, the book has something rarely seen in popular fiction: an authentic relationship between a woman and man, intimate but not romantic or sexual.

Jules’s moment of clarity comes when she realizes it’s not important to be “the dazzler” anymore—that she can “cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.” Decency, steadfastness, integrity: these are the qualities that count. To embrace them is not to surrender her youthful ideals, but to grow into a life only dimly visible from summer camp.

In Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina (Random House Books for Young Readers, $17.99, 512 pp.), once-warring kingdoms of dragons and human beings coexist peacefully, if not always in true mutual understanding. But this fantasy novel—published on a young-adult imprint—has far more sophistication than either that summary suggests or the genre might be expected to yield.

That’s because Hartman doesn’t settle for easy bromides about familiarity breeding tolerance. The differences between the species—humans as emotionally layered, dragons as coldly logical—spark tensions and spur contests of loyalty based on affinity and biology. “I believed, perhaps erroneously, that our peoples would simply grow accustomed to each other, given the cessation of warfare,” the human Queen Lavonda muses about the treaty she has signed with dragonkind. “Are we oil and water, that we cannot mix?”

It’s among the questions the title character, a young musician in Lavonda’s court, must contemplate, making Seraphina an effective investigation of larger real-world issues even as it manages to retain its coming-of-age appeal.

Far from a fantasy land of queens and dragons is the gritty milieu of Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award–winning The Round House (HarperCollins, $27.99, 341 pp.), in which a Native American household is disrupted by the rape of the mother. Looking back on the attack, her son Joe—who was just thirteen at the time—tries to explain how deeply it has affected him and his family: “Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones.... We were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening. And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”

Erdrich is sharply perceptive in depicting the considerable obstacles this Ojibwa family faces in finding justice. Just as keen is her take on the traumatic toll of sexual assault, not just on victims, but on the people who love them. Though the mother’s experience remains at the center of the narrative, the continuing impact on Joe—a good boy who desperately wants to be a good man—is what propels it toward its climax.

While Erdrich’s protagonist is rooted in place, tradition, and memory, the heroine of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribner, $26.99, 400 pp.) is a drifter. But then the book itself ranges far and wide as well, capturing the enthusiasm of Italian futurism and the ugliness of colonialism while remarking on art, history, politics, and class, and delivering no small amount of romantic intrigue. Yet this sweeping novel about an aspiring artist named Reno, her love affair with a more established sculptor named Sandro, and their circle of New York friends is at its best when it’s focused on how hard it can be to acknowledge the rawness of your own ambition.

With her Nevada roots and relative inexperience, Reno lacks the confidence so on display among the cosmopolitan set, feeling it’s her place to listen rather than speak at dinner parties attended by glamorously grungy intellectuals and established artists. Her shyness and passivity extend even to her interactions with Sandro, who suggests the very projects she should pursue. It is only when the relationship and her art both reach a state of crisis that she sees how worrying about impressing other people has stalled her progress.

A common criticism of this kind of story is one that’s also been directed at Lena Dunham’s HBO sitcom Girls: that the struggles of such young women are fresh only to the people experiencing them. But Kushner embeds a tart rebuke to those who would dismiss the novel on those grounds. When Reno’s acquaintance Gloria mocks the outfit of a young woman at a gallery show, Reno realizes what the older woman is missing. “It’s new to her, I should have said but didn’t,” she thinks. “She’s on her timeline, Gloria, not yours or anyone else’s.”

So too the rest of the characters populating the books discussed here: young people on their own timelines. Give them a few more years to get things wrong; it’s an essential step in learning how to get things right.

 

Published in the December 6, 2013 issue: 
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Alyssa Rosenberg is features editor at ThinkProgress and the television columnist for Women and Hollywood. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, New York, Slate, and elsewhere.

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