Whatever you do, don't call Meg Wolitzer's new novel ''women's fiction.'' Last year, Wolitzer explained why that term annoys her in a brilliant essay, ''The Second Shelf,'' arguing that novels by women who write about love, family, and the suburbs are saddled with a genre tag while similar novels by men (think Jonathan Franzen's Freedom or Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot) earn the label ''literary fiction.'' Publishers reinforce those stereotypes, Wolitzer observed, by choosing girly designs for women's books, with covers that show ''laundry hanging on a line'' or ''a pair of shoes on a beach.'' Consider her latest work a victory, then. Not only does The Interestings secure Wolitzer's place among the best novelists of her generation, but no one would ever put laundry on the cover of a book this good.
Her story begins at an arts camp in upstate New York in 1974, where six teenagers are drawn together because they all think they're ''interesting.'' Schlubby Jules and her beautiful best friend, Ash, both dream of acting. Jonah plays the banjo, Cathy dances, and Ash's brother, Goodman, wants to be an architect. But it's Ethan, an awkward cartoonist, who's the breakout star: He goes on to develop a hit TV show, marry Ash, and get rich while the others just get older, adjusting their expectations in the decades to come. Wolitzer writes with real empathy about the ways friendships change and deepen amid great successes and disappointments, asking how people cope when the friends they love best are the ones they're most jealous of. As these ''gifted children'' reach middle age, the book also suggests that artistic merit may be less important a goal than emotional fulfillment. Luckily for us, that's how Wolitzer approaches storytelling, too. She's every bit as literary as Franzen or Eugenides. But the very human moments in her work hit you harder than the big ideas. This isn't women's fiction. It's everyone's. AThe Opening Lines
''On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony.''