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Review of A Fortunate Age

A Fortunate Age
By Joanna Smith Rakoff
Scribners, 2009

At first, you immediately dislike Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel A Fortunate Age , and you have many reasons: the subject matter (talky, brainless New Yorkers, social satire, and restaurants – oh dear God, the endless restaurants), the manipulative setting (an idyllic 1990s Manhattan being unwittingly stalked by 9/11), and even the type font (six paragraphs in: “’Mom,’” Dave moaned”; eight paragraphs in: “’Barry,’”cried her mother”; eleven paragraphs in: “’Mom, it’s fine!’” … if italics cost by the pound, Rakoff would owe you a rebate on the book).

The process that changes your reaction will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been seduced by New York (a sordid, delectable experience that can happen repeatedly throughout your life – and against which there is no known vaccine): gradually, grudgingly, you find yourself no longer loathing these people who surround you – in the case of A Fortunate Age, shallow, successful actor Tal, nebbishy Dave, callow and annoying Emily, and hapless sub-editor (and focal character) Sadie. It’s a weird alchemy: you aren’t any less discriminating in your tastes, and they aren’t any less flighty and irritating, and yet you find yourself caught up in the drama of their lives, conversant in the molehills out of which they make mountains, and somehow genuinely caring about it all.

Encountered objectively, the book’s close narrative of Sadie’s snobbish provincialism should repulse, as when, thinking she might be pregnant (and fearing that “the pregnancy might take”), she encounters a group of protesters in the street:

But as she approached Bleecker she saw that the signs were emblazoned with images rather than words, fuzzy red-tinted photographs of large-headed alien-type creatures. “Oh my God,” she said aloud, stopping cold. “No.” Then she started to laugh. The creatures were not, of course, aliens. They were babies. Or, no, fetuses. The protesters were shouting, over and over, “Murderer,” rendering the word nonsensical. This was an antiabortion rally. Antichoice, she corrected herself. In New York? she thought. In the Village? Bleecker, at its eastern end, was a posh block lined with quiet, elegant restaurants. As she rounded the corner, she found her answer: Planned Parenthood, the words imprinted in discreet teal script, several feet above the building’s glass doors. Somehow – how? – she’d never noticed.

By that In the Village? you should be wanting to hurl things at Sadie, or to hurl A Fortunate Age across the room – but you won’t. Instead, by some miracle of plotting and voice and sheer authorial conviction, Rakoff will keep you reading until the ending, as utterly predictable and inconclusive as that ending is, as you know it will be, long before you reach it.

And lest you scoff, recall: Dumas and Dickens owe their immortality to just such a miracle, and 99 percent of all authors living today couldn’t manage it on their best day at Yaddo. Time will tell if Rakoff can manage this twice, but in the meantime, we must all yield to A Fortunate Age.