The television show “Seinfeld” was famous for being a “show about nothing.” Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel, on the other hand, is a book about everything. A Fortunate Age covers the gamut of life experience as her characters deal with everything from careers, children and marriage to mental illness and death.
This epic novel follows six friends, each a freshly minted Oberlin graduate, starting adult lives in New York City: Sadie, who is rising through the ranks at her publishing house; Emily, a struggling actor who can’t afford to quit her day job; Tal, also an actor, but one who is successfully breaking into the movies; Dave, who is poised to trade one kind of musical success for another; Beth, an academic floating from one university to another as an adjunct; and Lil, a poetry scholar whose wedding opens the book.
Put together, this mélange of stories is part of something larger. A Fortunate Age is about a generation finding its way at a certain time in a certain place—New York City in the years just before and after 9/11—and Rakoff has brilliantly captured the mood of the era and the energy of a city. Members of Generation X will enjoy picking out her many pop culture references.
When the Twin Towers are attacked, Rakoff forgoes a dramatic recounting of the events of that day. Instead, we see her characters sit slack-jawed in front of the TV like so many of us did. As time passes, they go back to their desks, walk their children to the park—but these normal, everyday actions are infused with the notion that everything has changed.
That Rakoff covers so much ground is at once the book’s blessing and its curse. At times the sheer number of characters and their hangers-on can become overwhelming and, despite the length of the novel, the ending of the book seems to come quite abruptly. But these flaws are forgiven in favor of recognizing Rakoff’s successful portrayal of a generation coming of age in a period when the explosion of the Internet fundamentally changed the way we live and war changed the way we see ourselves in the world.
Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois.