Book Report: A Fortunate Age

If you loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Valerie Ann Leff’s Better Homes & Husbands or Elise Blackwell’s Grub, then Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel, A Fortunate Age (Scribner, 2009) is your kind of book.

Inspired by Mary McCarthy‘s 1962 bestseller, The Group (about eight young friends from Vassar), Fortunate follows four Oberlin grads (Beth, Emily, Lil and Sadie) as they begin lives, careers, marriages and families in New York City.

While Rakoff is hardly breaking ground with the girlfriends novel (this has spelled success for Sex & the City author Candace Bushnell for more than a decade now), there’s a reason it works: It’s relatable. And it allows the author to tackle her subject (here: coming of age) from the vantage of multiple heroines. In Fortunate there’s eager-to-please newlywed Lil, struggling actress Emily, frumpy lovelorn Beth and privileged but distant Sadie. Each character comes with her own elaborate back story, her string of admirers and relationships, family issues and dreams.

Rakoff does a wonderful job describing her heroines and minor character alike, the details at times universal and at times distinctly New York in flavor. Take the trust fund couple who choose to live as cheaply as possible: “Lil felt there was something admirable about such frugality, though in Rob and Caitlin’s case, it seemed slightly histrionic, because Rob was rich … Their apartment was studded with heavy bureaus and thick rugs and oils of long-nosed ancestors filched from his great-grandfather’s Rhinebeck ‘cottage.’”

Set, at the opening, in the late 1990s, Fortunate is rich with allusions to a bygone era. New York is changing but yet untouched by 9/11. Everyone seems to have glamorous apartments, wealthy parents with great expectations, and limitless job possibilities—even if the jobs aren’t the ones they’d choose.

At times the density of detail slows the pace of Fortunate, but even though the characters must each work through individual dramas, the narrative arc of story is more about emotions, experiences and the sometimes cruel twists of day to day life than it is about action.

At just under 400 pages, Fortunate is a thick tome in which to get lost. This is the sort of book that makes an airplane ride pass quickly; the sort of book that presents characters who feel like friends and who the reader will sorely miss after the final chapter.

Joanna Smith Rakoff reads from A Fortunate Age at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Sept. 5. 7 p.m., free.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.