Jules Jacobson goes to Spirit-in-the-Woods arts camp the summer after her father dies. She is stunned and pleased and more than a little surprised to discover herself a member of a group of talented fellow fifteen and sixteen year olds who all aspire to lives in the arts. Jules, who secretly fears that she might be boring, wants to be a comedic actress. The incandescent and beautiful Ash also wants to act. Homely Ethan is an animator. Jonah is a gifted musician whose mother is a famous folk singer. Buxom Cathy is a dancer. And Goodman is just Goodman, the shiny, popular kid around whom everyone wants to orbit. The summer is absolutely magical for Jules and she will spend the rest of her life wanting to escape back to it with all of its promise and potential. For the next forty years, Jules, Ethan, Ash, and Jonah will maintain friendships that ebb and flow but they will always come back together because they knew each other when they were still so unformed; they are each others' pasts and presents.
The group is torn asunder not long after their magical summer by the accusation of violence and unquestioning assumptions of guilt and innocence. The remaining four grow up and launch themselves into life, with their hopes and dreams still intact. Over the long years of the novel, the realities of real life intrude for some while others achieve more than they ever expected. Much of the novel's narration focuses on Jules, telling not only of her own grown-up life as a therapist but also of the lives of Ethan and Ash, who become rich and successful as animator/cartoonist and director respectively, and Jonah, who inexplicably gives up his music to become an engineer. The group's individual goals have diverged drastically and their lifestyles are vastly different too. Jules is incredibly jealous at almost every turn. Her focus on the others, specifically Ethan and Ash, is tainted by the lens of extreme envy and a sad dissatisfaction with her own life which is hard to read. It's almost as if she stopped maturing emotionally the day she stepped foot at Spirit-of-the-Woods. Ethan's lifelong, unrequited desire for Jules, despite the outward blessings of his life, is inexplicable and makes him a little bit pitiful as a character. Wolitzer knows how to write but the dry whininess of her characters and the monotony of the story arc conspire against her. While Wolitzer may be an accomplished writer, her occasional sex scenes are ghastly. They add nothing to the book, driving the plot not at all, and quite frankly are incredibly unappealing to read, taking the reader firmly out of the story with a shiver. There are interesting nuggets about creativity and talent, the mechanism of success, the importance of connections, and the responsibility of wealth buried in the plot but with Jules and Ethan being the major focus of the narration, it is hard to see the novel as anything but a study in disappointment. Certainly they, and the book, are not really all that interesting.