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A Fortunate Age: A Novel Paperback – February 16, 2010
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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.
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Not that the episodic novel juggling a half dozen angst-ridding professionals can't be done. Joshua Ferris did a better job with his recently published Then We Came to the End. Also, you'll get more narrative bite with similar subject matter and similar overly educated, academic characters by the reading the masterful short stories of Lorrie Moore. Birds of America, Self-Help, Life-Like are great story collections to begin with.
As far as Joanna Smith Rakoff is concerned, she a writer with enormous talents and she will be back--hopefully with a novel that focuses more intensely on one character or just a few characters.
What I especially appreciate is that this crisp, well-paced saga and ensemble bildungsroman never devolves into melodrama or soap suds, although there are plenty of emotional forays into despair and lots of love gone sour moments. It feels theatrical at intervals but never stagy. It is smart, ripe, classy, and atmospheric. It also captures the boroughs of New York with a sensory precision. You can envision the bustle of human traffic as well as the subway; the storefronts and coffee shops; the music venues and hotels; the restaurants and dives; the clatter and the fumes. Although it is set largely in the latter part of the nineties,it has a vintage feel to it throughout. Even the names--Sadie, Lil, Emily Beth, Dave, and Tal--have names resonant of the past. It is about people, not technology and product placement. Those kinds of references are kept to a minimum. This is a timeless story, not flashy or self-referential; instead, it is dramatic and sweeping.
The main characters are introduced to the reader in the beginning at Lil's wedding to Tuck. They all (except Tuck) met at Oberlin, where college life did not separate them due to their differences. Back then, they were egalitarian, even socialist bohemians, vowing never to become materialistic or conventional. The first shocker is when Lil gets married--she, of all of them, swore she would never walk down the aisle. It foreshadows how later events--the transformations of their former dreams and attitudes--both divide them and bring them together. Although some of them went their different ways to some extent after Oberlin, they all kept in touch. Some went to grad school, some dropped out. Two were actors, one in publishing, some were teaching at a college level, playing music, or writing their dissertations. Through it all, they continued to intersect and care deeply about one another. A few seek fame, but all of them desire to be different from their parents and to make their mark of individual success. They have a fear of mediocrity, of the mundane. And they are all now living in New York again.
The women have larger roles in the book, although Dave has a solid few chapters, where the reader can see his intimate thoughts and emotions. But this is definitely more from the women's point of view.
Rakoff captures each character with distinction, and she also has strong secondary characterizations. These people are three-dimensional. They don't depend on plot or another character to shine through (except for Tal, who is the most remote). Rakoff sharply defines the physical as well as dynamic traits of the circle of friends, as well as other men and women that are brought into the story. This made it very hard to let go of everyone when the novel ended. They still animated my thoughts--I can still imagine what they would all be doing or saying, thinking or feeling.
What I loved about this author's style is her ability to write the everyday with the grand, the small gesture and the larger dramas. Nothing was affected in her writing--and her research was impeccable. When she writes about mental and emotional handicaps, she writes with naked authenticity. Even the minutiae were lucid and rendered with authority. Nothing was hamstrung in this novel. And for those that like apt literary allusion, you will not be disappointed. Rakoff is facile and fresh with it.
The final moments took my breath away, and not because of any deus ex machina or cloying contrivances. Instead, the author was innovative in ending this decade-long drama with a slice-of-life rather than a pithy closure. Life isn't about closure, for all the pop psychology and its tenets. Life circles, and is filled with the awkward moments and the small peregrinations. The author's approach to her anti-climax--giving the ending a stark verisimilitude rather than tapering it off with ease--left me with a quiet but visceral gasp.
If you enjoy character-driven page-turners about a group of Jewish (but secular) well-educated friends coming of age in the boroughs of New York, then you are in for a memorable, enthralling tale.
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