[15 May 2009]
In penning an homage to Mary McCarthy’s The Group, author Joanna Smith Rakoff is either brave or nuts. After years of reading her work in Poets and Writers, I know she isn’t stupid. Yet here, in her first novel, she opens herself to tough comparisons and certain critical sniping.
I am of mixed feelings regarding these sorts of books—consider the veritable industry in “fictionalized” accounts of Sylvia Plath or the sacks of money being made off Jane Austen’s work. Can’t you think of something else? I want to ask these writers, something original? Then again, the further I got into A Fortunate Age, the more these thoughts felt unwarranted. Yes, Rakoff freely admits A Fortunate Age is an homage, and more fervid critics are moving between both books, offering page-by-page commentary, neglecting to mention that A Fortunate Age, though imperfect, is keenly observed and excellently written.
Running from 1999 to 2004, A Fortunate Age follows Oberlin friends Tal, Dave, Emily, Sadie, Lil and Beth as they graduate and embark on their lives. All are artsy Jews, all from wealth, excepting Emily, whose parents have spent their life savings caring for Emily’s mentally ill sister, Clara. These children of privilege are the book’s worst flaw: nothing truly bad has ever happened to these fortunate friends, making their romantic entanglements, career struggles, and Brooklyn apartments hard to take seriously. It may be that I am curmudgeonly, but this modern-day Group only irritated me: apart from Emily, their sufferings were just too…simple, their dramas childish. They left college, squirmed over using their trust funds, got lousy jobs, fell in love with the wrong people. Got better jobs, fell in love with better people. Found God. Found fame. Found financial security. Had babies. And?
At 399 pages, Rakoff has plenty of room to work in a great deal, and she takes full advantage of that spaciousness. There are the Group’s Boomer parents, former hippies and Peace Corps veterans comfortably ensconced in wealthy suburban lives that make their ironic progeny nervous. Various acquaintances create additional characters, subplots, and overlapping circuits of activity, reminding me of an Amanda Hesser comment in Cooking for Mr. Latte: “Make friends with a friend of a friend and he or she will take you to new circles, and circles in New York are surprisingly small and insular.”
Indeed, A Fortunate Age is unrelentingly insular. With its emphasis on gentrifying Brooklyn, the book will leave some non-New Yorkers nonplussed and perhaps a bit lost. Anything happening outside New York merits only offstage action: Tal’s increasing time in Israel, Sadie’s husband Ed’s travels to various hotspots, where he films documentaries, Lil’s worried California parents. Only New York, specifically Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Park Slope neighborhoods, matter, right down to train routes, chic restaurants, the hippest clubs, and the right places to buy coffee. Living as I do in the insanely expensive San Francisco Bay area, where real estate sickness is hard upon us, I can empathize about overpriced apartments in dicey areas, but only to a point. Rakoff’s version of New York real estate sickness makes the Bay Area’s housing obsessions seem like a mild square footage cough.
In this milieu Rakoff homes in on a character, creates the arc of a life, then moves to the next person. She begins with Lillian’s wedding to the unsavory Tuck, whose nickname kept me up at night. Lil and Tuck. Lil and Tuck. What was it? Tuck and Patti? No. No. Lily Tuck! The News from Paraguay! Was this some secret gesture on Rakoff’s part, a nod to a friend, or do I need to be on medication? Never mind: Rakoff describes the wedding in minute detail—the synagogue, the toasts, the dresses, the afterparty. It is soon apparent that Tuck is a loser, an unreliable drunk in thrall to magazine mogul Ed Slikowski, the man who later marries Sadie.
After Lil’s wedding the story shifts to Beth, stuck in her thesis, in dire need of a job. At the wedding she meets Will Chase, a snide writer for the Wall Street Journal. Beth’s sexual encounter with Will is one of the more humiliating I’ve read, yet mere pages later she is engaged to the jerk, shopping for wedding dresses in Scarsdale. After a meltdown in Saks, where she confesses to her mother that she may still be in love with Dave, who dumped her, the book only revisits her through the others. What exactly she sees in Will, or he in her, is never made clear.
On to Dave, a piano prodigy. After a few miserable years in grad school, he drops out, joining a band of far younger men calling themselves Ahedonia. Led by the mutely charismatic Curtis Lang, Anhedonia is beginning to do very well. But Dave is resentful of Curtis, who refuses to hear his songs or allow him to sing. Or so he thinks, until the night before a huge show, when Curtis breaks from his normally inexpressive demeanor, attempting to speak openly with Dave, who destroys the opportunity for interaction. The band nevertheless becomes enormously popular.
Emily Kaplan is the only character I felt for. An impoverished actress, she inhabits a horrible, sinkless studio. She auditions, diets, takes dance classes, and works like a dog to get parts, all while holding down a necessary office job. But parts are slow in coming until she is cast in what is promised to be a big Broadway production. Thrilled to be off the audition circuit, she takes up with Curtis Lang, whose unwashed aura is quickly dispelled by visits to his parents, a team of psychotherapists with a nice house, and the troubling existence of Curtis’ wife, Amy. The marriage was merely one of convenience, divorce imminent. Emily tolerates this for a year before coming to her senses, only to have her life crumble. The show does indeed move to Broadway, with another cast. Worse, Clara is being discharged from the hospital, and Emily’s parents decide to dump Clara on her.
Clara’s arrival begins promisingly enough, but her chronic mental illness soon ruins both their fragile relationship and Emily’s health, which leads her to Curtis’ mother, Judith Lang, in turn leading to Emily’s meeting with Dr. Josh Gitter. Thus the sole character facing real trouble in A Fortunate Age gets her storybook ending.
Oddly, actor Tal Morganthal is seen only through the eyes of others, particularly Dave, who is initially envious at his friend’s good fortune. A talented actor, Tal rapidly ascends from commercials to television spots to big Hollywood movies, which take him far from New York and his affair with Sadie. Despite spending more time in Israel and less time acting, none of the Group realize what’s up until the novel’s close, when Tal appears sporting a yarmulke and long beard.
The lion’s share of the novel’s action goes to Sadie Peregrine. The prettiest of the girls, she has affairs with Tal and an FBI agent casing her neighbor’s apartment, finally marrying Ed Slikowski, the media mogul-turned documentary filmmaker. To her friends, Sadie appears to be all-knowing, an expert on all matters glossed with physical perfection. Sadie is indeed bright and confident, her editorial career ascendant, until an unplanned pregnancy throws her off track. Suddenly she is—God Forbid—a Brooklyn Mommy. Rakoff is very funny here on the New York Mommy Cult, obsessing over strollers and breastfeeding and what preschools the little darlings should attend. Sadie does her best to avoid the mommy pitfalls, but she is no longer working, and Ed’s rigorous schedule means she spends hours alone with son Jack.
Rakoff’s tremendous cultural reach is admirable—moving from Heidegger to Hüsker Du to Salon.com, with 9/11 added for good measure. Her writing is polished, incisive, and witty; the book is engrossing, capturing a time before the economy crashed and we were all free to hate Bush while drinking stupidly expensive cocktails. If only we could care more for the characters.
The next time—and I hope there is one—I hope Rakoff creates something entirely imagined, without the borrowed scaffolding of homage, and pushes her characters harder, giving them crises beyond trust funds and the death of irony. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, lean hard on these people: write it down, then let us read about how they cope, not what they wore while they coped. That book—which I am certain Rakoff can write—will be even better.