In A Fortunate Age, the debut novel from Joanna Smith Rakoff (Scribner, $26.00), six Oberlin graduates discover for themselves what twentysomethings have known for generations: life in New York can be filled with possibilities, adventures, hardships and heartbreak. An homage to Mary McCarthy’s classic 1930s novel, The Group, Smith Rakoff ’s entertaining comic account tumbles through the lives of overeducated young Jews forging their familiar paths in late 1990s Brooklyn.
Beth, Sadie, Lil, Emily, Tal and Dave hail from the well-to-do suburbs of Jewish America; after graduating, each finds a path to New York and its worlds of theater, academia, publishing, and the dot-com explosion. Each of the six gets a chapter, in rotation, narrated by a voice both bitingly ironic and deeply sympathetic to the difficulties they each face: infidelity, unemployment, mental illness, to list just a few. This novel’s humor is both its strength and its weakness: the characters’ lives seem charmed, occasionally veering towards trite, but the very realness of these young adults, their ability to feel deeply and relate intimately, draws the reader in to their world of fantastic weddings and barroom accidents, recording studios and anarchist plots hatched in fancy high-rise apartments. Rakoff ’s writing has the most draw when she keeps up narrative momentum. One of the highly most memorable scenes involves Emily’s spiraling into debt when her manic-depressive sister moves in: exhausted from working a second job, she shatters her foot with a beer keg, and a delirious hospital bed conversation leads to a marriage proposal from the cute attending doctor.
The nearly-unnoted fact of all six’s Jewishness struck this reader as rather remarkable. These six best friends live in a world filled with secular and cultural Jews, with the novel’s opening wedding scene setting the tone with a chuppah and traditional blessings. And these women grapple with questions of feminism perhaps more explicitly than with their Jewishness. “Some of their mothers — feminists, children of the 60’s — had kept their own names, even if just professionally, which the girls thought dry and unromantic. They had all been thinking, separately, that when they got married (if they got married), they would do as Lil did and hyphenate, or turn their original family names into middle names.” Several of the women in the novel make choices that their “feminist mothers” may not have made — to stay at home with children, to live in New York City — and Rakoff documents their angst and concerns with tenderness and wit.
Sara N. S. Meirowitz is a freelance editor, writer, teacher and soup artist living in Jerusalem.