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A Fortunate Age: A Novel [Hardcover]

Joanna Smith Rakoff
2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Instantly compelling and immensely satisfying, A Fortunate Age details the lives of a group of Oberlin graduates whose ambitions and friendships threaten to unravel as they chase their dreams, shed their youth, and build their lives in Brooklyn during the late 1990s.

There’s Lil, a would-be scholar whose wedding brings the group back together; Beth, who struggles to let go of her old beau Dave, a onetime piano prodigy trapped by his own insecurity; and Emily, an actor perpetually on the verge of success— and starvation—who grapples with her jealousy of Tal, whose acting career has taken off. At the center of their orbit is wry, charismatic Sadie Peregrine, who coolly observes her friends’ mistakes but can’t quite manage to avoid making her own. As they begin their careers, marry, and have children, they must navigate the shifting dynamics of their friendships and of the world around them—from the decadent age of dot-com millionaires to the sobering post–September 2001 landscape. Smith Rakoff’s deeply affecting characters capture a generation.

Explore the reading group guide for A Fortunate Age --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Rakoff's debut novel is a ponderous, meandering and nostalgic portrait of a postcollegiate group of Gen-Xers awkwardly navigating weddings, pregnancies, betrayals and funerals in pre- and post-9/11 New York City. At the center of the group is Sadie Peregrine, a rising book editor who is having trouble reconciling her personal and professional ambitions. Rounding out her circle is Lil, a depressed and flailing scholar; Emily, a starving actress; Tal, a successful actor; Beth, a would-be English prof; and Dave, an enigmatic musician and Beths ex-boyfriend. The writing is episodic and relies heavily on exposition, and many character interactions and plot developments occur off the page and are referred to only indirectly. At her best, Rakoff offers a carefully studied glimpse into her characters minds. Too often, though, the large cast and the hopscotch chronology come at the expense of narrative tension, of which there isn't much. Thirty-somethings looking back wistfully on their 20s and their struggles with the vicissitudes of adulthood might get a bang out of this. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

This début novel updates Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” a satirical portrait of nineteen-thirties Vassar graduates, for the late-nineties boom years in Manhattan, where six Oberlin graduates struggle to make it as writers, actors, musicians, and academics. The novel ably captures the zeitgeist, with venture capitalists financing magazines headed by M.I.T. prodigies and young people worrying about the gentrification of their Brooklyn neighborhoods. But where McCarthy’s histrionic rich girls enabled her to skewer contemporary mores, Smith Rakoff’s are almost indistinguishable in their blandness. All “dewy flowers of the upper middle class,” they want to rebel against their “brash bourgeois” upbringings intellectually, but without sacrificing material comforts. An understandable dilemma, yet it fails to generate much narrative tension.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Like the classic novel it so obviously pays homage to, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Rakoff’s mesmerizing debut opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, the novel provides a pitch-perfect portrait of the generation that came of age in the 1990s as four ambitious Oberlin graduates arrive in New York City full of hopes and dreams. They include native New Yorker Sadie, a book editor who is the most emotionally stable member of the group; Emily, a talented actress who can’t catch a break; Lil, a brainy doctoral student given to intense bouts of insecurity; and Beth, still in love with her musician boyfriend from college. As Rakoff depicts how the arts-loving group very slowly morphs into adulthood, ultimately weighed down by the same concerns as their “bourgeois” parents, she acerbically sends up the time’s complicated politics, which dictate that eating a cheeseburger is an immoral act, and self-serving attitudes toward wealth. Yet she also invests the group’s life choices and mistakes with a real sense of urgency, casting the postcollegiate years as a kind of crucible that only the strong survive. If this smart, thoroughly absorbing novel recalls The Group, it also recalls the seminal work of Anne Beattie in the seventies and Jay McInerney in the eighties. Like them, Rakoff captures a certain time and place with heartbreaking clarity. --Joanne Wilkinson

Review

"A wonderful, funny and spot-on portrait of my clumsy generation that brings to mind such hallmarks as Mary McCarthy's The Group, Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls, and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children." -- Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook

"Joanna Smith Rakoff has cast a brilliant and glittering spell with this fierce debut. Her social observations are not only spot-on but often wickedly funny...She has captured both a generation and a landscape, and I'm still marveling at how she managed to pull off this page-turning cocktail of intelligence and desire." -- Joanna Hershon, author of The German Bride

"Rakoff's mesmerizing debut opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, the novel provides a pitch perfect portrait of the generation that came of age in the 1990s. If this smart, thoroughly absorbing novel recalls The Group, it also recalls the seminal work of Anne Beattie in the seventies and Jay McInerney in the eighties. Like them, Rakoff captures a certain time and place with heartbreaking clarity." -- Booklist (starred)

"I'm in awe: at the assurance of Joanna Smith Rakoff's writing, the richness of her language, and the enthralling grip of this story. I'm excited the way you can only be excited by a big, thick novel you want to hibernate away with and not come out until you're done." -- Thisbe Nissen, author of The Good People of New York and Osprey Island

"An entertaining, updated look at artistic-minded young people progressing toward adulthood in New York. As they experience marriage, children, dot-com busts, infidelities, alcohol abuse, personal tragedies, professional successes, and other common experiences of twentysomethings in the mid-1990s, Rakoff objectively and deftly chronicles all of it." -- Library Journal --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Funny, compassionate and observant...the story is almost compulsively readable...Rakoff endows each [character] with a generous intelligence." -- The Los Angeles Times

"Ms. Rakoff's prose is funny and acerbic, and she gets many details...incredibly right...A Fortunate Age leaves a lasting impression." -- The New York Observer

"The attempt of each generation to carve out a bearable adult identity commands irresistible interest." -- The New York Times Book Review

"[A] richly drawn narrative...Smith Rakoff's social commentary remains both engaging and satisfying in its breadth and depth...expansive and elegantly executed" -- New York Daily News

"Superb, acutely insightful...a modern-day version of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence...deeply complex...beautiful and magical, as well as dark." -- TheRumpus.net

"The liberal-arts grads coming of age in Smith Rakoff's...New York City are indeed a fortunate bunch...the story lines...are compellingly drawn." -- Entertainment Weekly

"[A] delight....Writing with seamless transparency and intelligence, Rakoff has a light and witty touch...a dead-on psychological and social page-turner." -- Publishers Weekly Galley Talk

"Rakoff's mesmerizing debut opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, the novel provides a pitch perfect portrait of the generation that came of age in the 1990s. If this smart, thoroughly absorbing novel recalls The Group, it also recalls the seminal work of Anne Beattie in the seventies and Jay McInerney in the eighties. Like them, Rakoff captures a certain time and place with heartbreaking clarity."-- Booklist (starred)

"A wonderful, funny and spot-on portrait of my clumsy generation that brings to mind such hallmarks as Mary McCarthy's The Group, Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls, and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children."-- Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook

"Joanna Smith Rakoff has cast a brilliant and glittering spell with this fierce debut. Her social observations are not only spot-on but often wickedly funny...She has captured both a generation and a landscape, and I'm still marveling at how she managed to pull off this page-turning cocktail of intelligence and desire."-- Joanna Hershon, author of The German Bride --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Joanna Smith Rakoff has written for The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She holds a B.A. from Oberlin College; an M.A. from University College, London; and an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She lives in New York with her husband and son.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

one

On a gray October day in 1998, Lillian Roth found herself walking down the stone-floored aisle of Temple Emanu-El, clad in a gown of dark ivory satin and flanked by her thin, smiling parents, who had flown into New York from Los Angeles a mere seven days earlier, still in mild shock that their obstreperous daughter was submitting to the ancient rite of marriage. The synagogue's vaulted ceiling spinning above her, she took small, self-conscious steps toward the bima, where a serious-faced young man named William Hayes -- saddled with the improbable nickname of Tuck -- waited for her in an unfamiliar black suit, purchased two days earlier by his mother, who'd deemed the gray suit selected by Lil and Tuck inappropriate for an evening affair.

Four years and four months prior, Lillian had graduated from Oberlin College with honors in English (just plain honors, she often reminded herself in the years that followed, not highest honors, like her friend Sadie Peregrine, or even high honors, like their departmental nemesis, Caitlin Green). At her commencement brunch, dressed in another frock of dark ivory, she'd made a scene, feverishly arguing with her father about the purpose of marriage in the modern age. "It's an outmoded institution," she'd insisted, her dark brows moving closer together. The brunch, sponsored by the college, was held in a dank tent on Wilder Bowl, and the Moët was flowing perhaps a bit too freely. Lil had already spilled several sips down her dress. "Read any modern thinker -- " Struggling to come up with a specific name, she looked to her friends, her "crowd," as her father annoyingly called them -- Sadie, Beth Bernstein, Emily Kaplan, Tal Morgenthal, and Dave Kohane -- who sat around and opposite her, surrounded by their own parents, faces flushed proud. "They all say so."

The adults grinned serenely (smugly, to Lil's mind) and tilted their heads toward her, in gestures of intense patience. "You want a certain sense of security," suggested Sadie's mother, Rose, with whom Lil was a great favorite, having been brought home to the Peregrine town house for numerous Thanksgivings and spring breaks and even one summer, which Lil recalled as two months of unbridled bliss. "At a certain point, you want to belong to something, to a family."

Dave's mother leaned across the table toward Lil, her long red hair falling into the remains of her omelet. "I remember saying the exact same thing when I was your age."

"Mom," Dave moaned.

"Really?" said Lil, biting bits of dried lipstick off her lower lip. "I really don't think I'm going to change my mind." Her elders shared a dark glance. "I mean, is there any reason why people should get married?" Lil's father raised his wiry black brows, white threads extending from them like antennae, and let a gust of air out through his nose, from which hairs, white and black, also poked, mortifyingly. Twenty-odd years in Los Angeles had done nothing to weaken his Brooklyn accent.

"Taxes," he grumbled. "You get some tax breaks if you're married."

"Barry," cried Lil's mother, giving his arm a push.

Lil rolled her eyes. "Then why," she asked, "do I always hear people complaining about the 'marriage penalty'?"

Those five friends now sat in the synagogue's front benches -- soon they would be called to the bima to take part in the ceremony -- the girls zipped and laced and strapped into evening dresses, which they'd carried uptown in plastic garment bags and hung up to steam in the guest bathroom at the Peregrine town house, almost thirty blocks north of Emanu-El. They'd emerged from the 6 train at Eighty-sixth Street in the early morning to the sights of this strange and hectic neighborhood: blonde moms in jogging suits pushing goggle-eyed babies in old-fashioned prams; fancy grocers and chemists; matrons with pageboys, in dated suits and low-heeled pumps, and even, in some cases, neat fabric gloves. Such things proved exotic to these girls, who were just discovering the city from the vantage point of its more downtrodden, Bohemian outposts: Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, the grimy fringes of the Lower East Side. All neighborhoods that now command impressive rents, but were then regarded as vaguely suspect and marginally safe, particularly by the parents of the young persons in question.

Not that they cared ("Mom, it's fine!"). They lived where they could afford to live without the dreaded parental supplementation: in run-down tenements on narrow Brooklyn blocks, illegal sublets found through friends of friends (who could afford a broker's fee?), or rickety apartments in crumbling back-houses, let by landlords who'd never heard the word "code" in their miserly lives and who insisted on installing everything -- from stoves to toilets -- themselves, despite their inability to read English-language instruction manuals. According to Lil, Emily's apartment, on an increasingly expensive block in Williamsburg, had almost exploded a year prior, when the landlady used water piping rather than gas piping in the flat's little wall heater. "The gas just ate through the pipes," Lil had told Beth, breathlessly, over the phone. "She got home from work and there was gas puddled all over the floor. The fumes were so strong she could smell them on the street. Brooklyn Gas told her that if she'd worked an hour later, the place would have blown." Emily had stayed with Lil, at her place on Bedford, for nearly a week before things were straightened out.

And though Emily and Sadie worked in midtown and Lil attended Columbia, they met at bars in the East Village, coffee shops on the Lower East Side, and restaurants in Brooklyn, which Sadie Peregrine had, for a year or two after college, until the joke became old and a little embarrassing, called "the Far East," as she'd never visited the borough in her youth, never mind that her mother had grown up in Greenpoint, in a railroad apartment above Sadie's grandfather's optician shop (though she behaved, as Sadie liked to say, relishing the cliché, as though she were to the manor born).

Thus, the Upper East Side -- where Sadie herself was born and raised, as were several generations of Peregrines before her -- was alien territory to the other girls, save for the occasional trip to some doctor or other or, of course, to the Peregrine house, where they were occasionally brought round for dinner or Sunday breakfast with the dwindling Peregrine clan. Said neighborhood struck them as utterly outside the realm of their New York (the real New York, Emily privately thought, though she would never say so in front of Sadie), it being primarily inhabited by persons of some degree of wealth or those who aspire to it. Which is not to say that these girls -- and their male counterparts, Dave and Tal -- did not come from money, for, in a way, they did. With their shining hair and bright, clear eyes, they, all of them, were the dewy flowers of the upper middle class and, as such, were raised in needlessly large houses with a surplus of bathrooms and foodstuffs in the fridge, with every convenience, every luxury, every desire met. Their high school classmates -- the superstudents of Scarsdale (Beth), Brookline (Tal), Sherman Oaks (Lil), and so on -- were starting residencies at Mt. Sinai or on the partner track at Debevoise; they were, perhaps, even living in the blank residential towers of the East Nineties (despised by Sadie's parents for blocking their view), biding time before making their escapes to Westchester or Long Island or even (dread!) New Jersey.

But this group, our group, wanted nothing to do with money, the whiff of which had, they thought, spoiled their brash bourgeois parents and aunts and uncles, all of whom were, inevitably, doctors or lawyers or businessmen or sometimes teachers, and none of whom had read Sentimental Education or could identify the term "deconstruction" or made regular visits to the theater, except, perhaps, to see musicals or Neil Simon comedies. They -- the adults -- were too corrupted, too swayed and jaded by the difficulties and practicalities of adulthood, by the banal labyrinths of health insurance and Roth IRAs, by the relative safety of Volvo versus Saab versus Subaru, or flat Scottish cashmere versus the newer, softer, fluffier -- but possibly less durable -- stuff, imported from Nepal, that Neiman's is carrying lately. Their children were interested in art, though they wouldn't have ever put it like that. They had read Sentimental Education -- Dave in the original French -- and directed Ionesco and Genet plays. They went to the Whitney Biennial and visited the new galleries in Chelsea and Williamsburg and twice attended the Lucian Freud retrospective at the Met, but scorned anything to do with Picasso or Seurat or Monet or -- my God -- the pre-Raphaelites. They kept up with not just The New Yorker but Harper's and The Atlantic and even, for spurts of time, The New York Review of Books, and lately, Lingua Franca and Salon and various little magazines, though they agreed that the heyday of such ventures had passed decades earlier (what they wouldn't have given to be transported back to those early days of The Partisan Review, arguing Trotsky with Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy). They joked about Derrida and Lacan and Heidegger and Hume and Spinoza and New Criticism, and went to Shakespeare in the Park, and to see the RSC at BAM, and to movement-oriented stage adaptations of Anna Karenina at La Mama, and to Goddard, Fellini, Pasolini, Lubitsch, Bergman, and, of course, Woody Allen festivals at Film Forum.

Or, at least, they had done so -- read their classics, favored black-and-whites in repertory -- for four long years. Now, at twenty-six, as they struggled to make rent on their grimy apartments, as they bathed in chipped bathtubs, which in Emily's case -- poor Emily being the most impoverished of the group -- also served as a kitchen sink, they were starting to feel a little tired, a little sick of the nights in cafés typing o... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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