Joanna Smith Rakoff alternately skewers and celebrates a certain type of person in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age. Paying homage to Mary McCarthy’s classic upper-middle-class melodrama The Group, Rakoff follows a clique of post-grads as they settle into New York City in the mid-’90s, and as their political and social ideals are put to the test by the realities of finding jobs, getting married, and having kids. As independent-minded as these young women are, they fall into the same patterns as their parents and grandparents, starting with A Fortunate Age’s well-observed opening scene, which takes place at a lavish wedding. The bride’s close-knit friends are incredulous about the bourgeois display of bouquets and bridesmaids, but that doesn’t stop any of them from trying to look their best, or from being a little offended when some rocker friends crash the party. These ladies are boho, but they still know which fork to use with the fish course.
A Fortunate Age clearly comes from an insider’s perspective, and there’s a good chance Rakoff’s treatment of her characters’ biases and hypocrisies is in some ways self-critical. Still, the book’s most significant stumbling block is that Rakoff can’t completely disguise her disdain for her naïve, inadvertently snobby heroines. Rakoff follows four women in particular—an actress, an editor, and two academics—from the dawn of the dot-com era to the thick of the Bush administration, and seems to delight in punishing them with cheating husbands, career setbacks, and life-threatening health issues. Whatever A Fortunate Age’s heroines think they know about how the world works, Rakoff stands ready to disabuse of them that notion. That said, Rakoff does know the times, the place, and the people very well, and she mixes them together into a soapy froth that’s hard to resist. A Fortunate Age aches for a time when more seemed possible, and for people whose problems were almost entirely self-created. No matter how silly and shallow Rakoff’s heroines seem, she clearly wishes she could go back and spend more time with them. So she wrote a whole novel to do just that.