Thursday, July 22, 2010
The Fortunate Ones
As a rule, I don't usually read contemporary novels, outside of a few authors I consistently enjoy. However, I am often drawn to novels about people coming into their own within the context of a very certain time, a very certain place. (I may have mentioned I love movies and books with a strong sense of place.)
In my rereading kick, I recently picked up A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff, a novel that came out about a year ago. The book follows the lives of Lil Roth, Sadie Peregrine, Beth Bernstein, Tal Morgenthal, Dave Kohane, and Emily Kaplan, a group of friends living in New York City and takes place mostly between 1998 and 2002. They all met when they attended and graduated from Oberlin College. Each is born to a prosperous family, and each tries to get away from their own affluence to become musicians, actors, artists, or English professors. The novel captures the jaded prosperity of the late 90s, leading into the sobering up of America with 9/11.
The book opens with the marriage of Lil Roth to Tuck Hayes, a man relatively unknown to the rest of the group. Lil is the first to get married or even embrace any real notion of commitment among the group. While I cannot say Lil is the main character in the book, her disastrous marriage to egotistical slacker Tuck coupled with her strange behavior, often makes her a topic of conversation among the others. The novel also opens and closes with events around Lil. My favorite quote about Lil:
She was a perfect, devoted obsessively attentive friend who could spend hours dissecting Emily's or Sadie's or Dave's problems; who always remembered birthdays and bought too many perfectly chosen gifts; who would meet for coffee at the drop of a hat- and yet over the years somehow those virtues had hardened into something akin to flaws. The light of her affection shined too brightly for any one friend to bear...
Besides Lil, each friend "grows up," moving beyond their own hang-ups and neuroses to finally embrace a more adult life. This seems perfectly set up with pre-9/11 New York City, when people were rather jaded in their own affluence. September 11, 2001 becomes a subtle turning point for all the characters. Sadie says about her life before when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant: "Everything just feels so pointless. . . . It’s all, like, where are we going to eat for dinner? What movie are we going to see? . . . There’s no urgency to anything. No reason for anything.”
My only criticism for the book that when each character makes the leap into adulthood, it all looks the same: urban NYC parents with spouse, kids and a co-op. It would have been more interesting if one or two of them had grown into something slightly different, yet still resembling a more responsible life. 2 1/2 stars