A Fortunate Age
By Joanna Smith Rakoff
Simon & Schuster, 399 pages, $26
For those of us who graduated from college and moved to New York in the mid-to-late ’90s, Joanna Smith Rakoff’s novel A Fortunate Age will be a fun if perhaps bittersweet and nostalgic read full of period details and cultural references of those heady times when living in Brooklyn felt gritty and edgy and no one spoke of trans fats or smoking bans. But, in fact, the underlying unease at the center of the novel will be familiar to anyone (in any time period) who has moved to this town and felt like New York was their own personal discovery. Much like Mary McCarthy’s 1963 classic The Group (to which Ms. Rakoff wrote her own book in homage), A Fortunate Age follows the lives of a group of just-barely-adults figuring out how to live—only this time they experience the Internet boom and bust and 9/11, along with divorces, death, affairs and the children who show up along the way.
Ms. Rakoff follows McCarthy’s structure: The book opens with a wedding (a most unconventional affair in a loft along “a treeless stretch of Bushwick Avenue, punctuated with subway grates”) and closes with a very much grown-up funeral. In between we meet a group of friends who narrate each section from a different point of view. There’s Lil, the early bride (in college: “[her] dark hair then hung nearly down to her waist, in a black crepe dress from the 1940s, shortened to mid-thigh, and a pair of cherry red Doc Martens”) and a poetry graduate student at Columbia who marries the feckless Tuck; Beth, a Scarsdale-bred academic forever working on her dissertation who resolves not to be like her bourgeois parents (and proves it with a most dirty first-date sexual exploit!); Dave, an arrested-development-type would-be rocker; Emily, who struggles for theater stardom while caring for her mentally ill sister; and Sadie, a book editor who can’t quite reconcile her personal and professional ambitions.
Ms. Rakoff’s prose is funny and acerbic, and she gets many details of the time and the place incredibly right (one peripheral yet important character, Caitlin Green, is a recognizable if loathsome type who tries on various identities like cocktail dresses—lesbian, anarchist, vegan, rich and smug married mommy).
But A Fortunate Age is also an ambitious book, and it takes some time to settle in and separate each character from the others enough so that their various relationship trees are clearly visible for the forest. Some of these voices are instantly familiar and dear, but just when you get attached, you are yanked away again as the book veers off into someone else’s head and story.
Still, A Fortunate Age leaves a lasting impression. It’s a credit to Ms. Rakoff’s sharp writing that you will wonder what happens to her creations as we edge warily and further into the 21st century.
Sara Vilkomerson writes about books and movies for the Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org