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.