A Fortunate Age is Joanna Rakoff’s first novel, which has been recently reissued in the wake of her wildly successful memoir My Salinger Year.
The plot follows the lives of six friends – Sadie, Emily, Beth, Lil, Dave and Tal – as they attempt to forge careers and relationships in New York in the years following their college graduation. Bookended by a wedding and funeral, the novel follows each character’s path through the trials of early adulthood; breaking away from parental support, finding a partner and launching a meaningful career.
The characters all have aspirations in creative fields; Lil and Beth are fledgling academics, Sadie works in publishing, Emily and Tal are actors and Dave is a musician. Moving from college out into a world where their intellectual and artistic pretensions are no longer indulged, much of the narrative tension revolves around their inner turmoil at reconciling their political and artistic ideals to the realities presented by adult life.
Spanning the years between 1998 and 2004, Rakoff’s story unfolds by regularly switching between points of view (for some reason excluding Tal), using the friendship between the characters as a means of linking the separate perspectives. This framework sees each character slide in and out of focus, since each narrator subconsciously reveals and conceals different aspects of their friends’ personalities.
The novel’s title styles the group as privileged and, in contrast to most of the world, they certainly are; these are college-educated, upper to upper-middle-class Americans, supplied with opportunities well beyond the reach of many and able to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Yet the characters perceive their situations quite differently and consider themselves forced by an ever-darkening economic and political context into a series of compromises in their relationships and career choices.
A Fortunate Age is a complex and ambitious debut novel. The imposing roster of main and minor characters, many of whom seem to have little to differentiate them from each other, means sustained concentration is needed to keep them all straight. I found the first chapter, in particular, to be a whirlwind of introductions to barely distinguishable main and minor characters.
However, Rakoff’s ability to conjure the atmosphere and sensory experience of New York is one of A Fortunate Age’s great strengths, and readers familiar with the city, particularly around the turn of the century, will love the rich array of cultural references and sense of place that give the novel its authenticity as a work of social realism.
I’m also willing to admit that I launched into the book too quickly and with too much enthusiasm. Having loved Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year, I thought I knew what to expect in terms of style and pace. On finishing A Fortunate Age, initially I felt that that the novel seemed less polished than the memoir and Rakoff less confident as a writer. Now that I’m aware that the novel was initially published in 2009 and reissued in the wake of the runaway success of My Salinger Year, it all makes sense.
Reassessing A Fortunate Age as a debut social realist novel readjusted my expectations and allowed me to appreciate it for its ambitious scope, complex structure and utterly convincing sense of place.
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