Sometimes a novel’s surface weaknesses reveal themselves as underlying strengths. Such is the case with A Fortunate Age, the debut by Joanna Smith Rakoff. The novel initially seems derivative, contrived and cliched. But ultimately it is brilliantly so, subverting all that has inspired it.
In her acknowledgments, the author reserves final credit for, “of course, Mary McCarthy, to whose marvelous novel, The Group, my own is, of course, an homage.” The template of following a group of friends through the travails of early adulthood will forever be associated with McCarthy, but Claire Messud more recently employed the model to greater literary effect with The Emperor’s Children. A similar dynamic has propelled the film The Big Chill and the TV series Friends. Among the conventions of such rites-of-passage narratives are that some of the friends will succeed beyond expectation, some will fall short of their promise and others will couple improbably. Life will not turn out as they’d planned.
In Rakoff’s novel, the six friends have moved from Ohio’s Oberlin (where the author attended college) to New York—mainly hipster Brooklyn. The narrative begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. In between, it chronicles six years that are filled with such belief-straining coincidence, startling leaps between cause and effect and shallowness of character that it initially seems that the novelist doesn’t know what she’s doing. Until it becomes obvious that she knows exactly what she’s doing—skewering both the soap-opera conventions of such a narrative and the values of the generation that spawned this one.
Clueless offspring of self-righteous boomer parents, these post-slackers stumble into marriage as heedlessly as some drunks stumble into bed. One has fallen in love with an actor buddy from college, until she has a chance encounter with an FBI agent, who loses her when she is impregnated by a hotshot magazine editor turned film director. Another is a promising actress replaced by a bigger name when the production moves to Broadway. She subsequently falls for a married indie-rock singer, moonlights as a bartender so she can make money to care for her previously institutionalized sister, is pursued by a psychiatrist who insists the sister needs further treatment—and then marries the psychiatrist and becomes a doctor herself.
Such plot strands (there are plenty more) initially defy credulity, but as the novel progresses, it’s a bigger surprise when chance encounters don’t lead to life-changing relationships, as if the plot were a literary pinball machine with characters bouncing off each other randomly. Still not sure what they want to be when they grow up, they are well-schooled in the hippest indie labels, the trendiest Brooklyn blocks and the hottest spots to meet for cappuccino, but they have absolutely no idea how to navigate love, marriage and jobs, which they both deride and desire as “a normal life.” Here’s hoping for a sequel, when all of them will be older, and none will be wiser.