Book review: A Fortunate Age is misnamed, but a triumph on its own
Sadie, Beth, Emily, Lil, Tal and Dave: six friends graduate from Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1998 and go to make their fortunes in New York. Joanna Smith Rakoff 's partly autobiographical first novel - published in Britain a year after the literary memoir My Salinger Year, which was her second book - is an impressively organised and psychologically astute account of the trials of growing up: finding a home, a job that means something, and a partner.
Beginning with Lil's wedding and ending with a funeral, the novel follows each young woman and Beth's former boyfriend, Dave, in and out of love and through the trials of their early careers, using their friendships as a framing device. Rakoff's characters slide in and out of focus as she shifts perspective, zooming in close on a chunk of each life before moving on. The author knows her material intimately - locations, personalities, turn-of-the-century attitudes - and handles it well.
The group, all Jewish, are arts graduates who mostly majored in English. Beth and Lil both harbour academic ambitions; Emily and Tal want to be actors; Dave, a musician. Only Sadie and Tal achieve their goals painlessly, Sadie in publishing and Tal in movies.
Beautiful Sadie - with her wealthy Upper East Side childhood, dominant mother and internet pioneer husband - is the group's anchor, but also a bit dull, especially when she quits her job for full-time motherhood. Lil's doomed struggle to make a success of her hasty marriage, Beth's erotic initiation by her temporarily impotent future husband, Will, and Dave's and Emily's bitter frustrations with bands and auditions are fresher and more absorbing.
Rakoff's ironic title styles them as the gilded youth of a fortunate age. In truth, and despite the opportunities supplied by inherited wealth and the dotcom boom, even ultra-privileged Sadie recognises it as a "brash and brutal era" in which nostalgia for the 1970s and '80s (and the college days "when they'd walked around campus at midnight … before things had become complicated") is a kind of armour.
Rakoff calls her story a homage to Mary McCarthy's classic 1963 Manhattan novel The Group. I would term some of it pastiche. This use of a template must have helped Rakoff to pull off her ambitious debut, but the comparison also reveals what her book lacks. Politics was intrinsic to McCarthy's outlook as a writer and activist, and her '30s young women have minds alive to the ideas swirling around them. Rakoff tries to imitate this, but even despite this drawback, her book is a real achievement.
A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff (Scribner)