A For­tu­nate Age

By – November 10, 2011

An homage to Mary McCarthy’s 1966 nov­el The Group, Joan­na Rakoff s debut nov­el cen­ters around the post-col­lege years of the set,” a group of six friends who met at Ober­lin and have since moved to New York. Com­posed of writ­ers, actors, aca­d­e­mics, some priv­i­leged, like trust­fund­ed Sadie Pere­grine of the Upper East Side, and some liv­ing on canned toma­to sauce and pas­ta like strug­gling actress Emi­ly Kaplan of Williams­burg. Their Jew­ish­ness under­lies the nar­ra­tive, a refresh­ing and inter­est­ing tech­nique as it reflects the real­i­ty of many Gen X‑ers’ cul­tur­al, rather than spir­i­tu­al, con­nec­tion to reli­gion. One of the set, Tal Mor­gen­thal, was pre­vi­ous­ly Hol­ly­wood bound, but broke his film con­tract to pur­sue reli­gios­i­ty in Israel. Anoth­er, Lil Roth, inward­ly toils with her family’s low­er­mid­dle- class roots, and mar­ries in pres­ti­gious Tem­ple Emanu-El. The nov­el reads more like a series of inter-con­nect­ed short sto­ries and is ide­al for thir­ty-some­things look­ing nos­tal­gi­cal­ly upon their twen­ties. Keep an eye on Sadie, def­i­nite­ly the most fas­ci­nat­ing and essen­tial mem­ber of the set.

A Con­ver­sa­tion with Joan­na Rakoff

by Jes­si­ca B. Horwitz

Based on Mary McCarthy’s 1966 nov­el, The Group, about the post­col­lege lives of young women in the 1930s, Joan­na Rakoff’s debut nov­el, A For­tu­nate Age, fol­lows a set of friends through their twen­ties in New York City and Brook­lyn in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Rakoff was imme­di­ate­ly cap­ti­vat­ed by McCarthy’s oeu­vre. If this nov­el took place now, these char­ac­ters would not be all these extra­or­di­nar­i­ly wealthy Pres­by­te­ri­ans from Boston,” she explained. They would be from all walks of life.” She notes a piv­otal moment in McCarthy’s nov­el when a char­ac­ter is shocked that her non-Jew­ish friend mar­ries a Jew­ish man. Rakoff’s par­ents and rel­a­tives grew up in 1930’s New York. This char­ac­ter could have mar­ried some­one in her family.

Rakoff’s par­ents come from The Great­est Gen­er­a­tion, pre­ced­ing the Baby Boomers. They had a huge cul­tur­al feel­ing,” she described when asked about their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. But not a strong reli­gious feel­ing. Reli­gion was just some­thing that you did with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly the spir­i­tu­al com­po­nent.” Her father was Ortho­dox, and his moth­er was an active mem­ber of the Social­ist Par­ty. She had a pret­ty seri­ous career and she was Ortho­dox, you would think those would be at odds with each other.”

Remark­ing on her own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in her writ­ing, Rakoff men­tions the surge of Jew­ish nov­els in the 2000s, includ­ing those by Gary Shteyn­gart, Myla Gold­berg, and oth­er con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish nov­el­ists. She felt that most of the Jew­ish sub­ject mat­ter was about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and the Holo­caust rather than about agnos­tic Jew­ish cul­ture in the Unit­ed States or the State of Israel, a per­son­al top­ic to the child and grand­child of Zion­ists, and one who attend­ed Zion­ist camps in her child­hood. Rakoff’s cen­tral char­ac­ters in A For­tu­nate Age all hap­pen to be Jew­ish, and the Jew­ish pres­ence takes the fore­front at par­tic­u­lar moments, a delib­er­ate choice for Rakoff. I want­ed the nov­el to be doc­u­men­tary- like, and cap­ture my expe­ri­ences and those of my friends.” 

So she cre­at­ed the true-to-life world of Lil, Beth, Emi­ly, Sadie, Dave, and Tal, grad­u­ates of Ober­lin who walk the divide between proud-yet-starv­ing artists and slaves to the cor­po­rate, work­ing world. 

Rakoff, her­self an Ober­lin alum, holds an MA from Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don and an MFA from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Grow­ing dis­il­lu­sioned with acad­e­mia” after con­sid­er­ing to pur­sue a Ph.D, Rakoff has since worked at the pres­ti­gious Harold Ober Lit­er­ary Agency, Uni­ver­si­ty Busi­ness Mag­a­zine (sis­ter pub­li­ca­tion of Lin­gua Fran­ca), as Edi­tor-in-Chief of Next­book, and as an active free­lance writer. In her twen­ties, like many work­ing in the arts, Rakoff exten­sive­ly bud­get­ed her measly income. No one I knew had any mon­ey,” she declared, with­out shame. At all.” She lived in a small, poor­ly con­vert­ed apart­ment in the Williams­burg neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn, which she recre­at­ed in the nov­el as the home of strug­gling actress Emi­ly, who (like the author) dreamt of remod­el­ing the place to include a kitchen sink or a bed­room door. 

McCarthy’s nov­el is a rather humor­ous chron­i­cle of a WASP‑y” set of friends, yet Rakoff s work remains rather seri­ous, deal­ing with issues such as mar­riage, career inse­cu­ri­ty, addic­tion, and the nation­al tragedy of Sep­tem­ber 11. In 2001, Rakoff loved her job, was build­ing a suc­cess­ful free­lance reper­toire, yet in the wake of 9/11, she awoke from a stu­por she hadn’t real­ized exist­ed. I was writ­ing, but I knew that I want­ed to write some­thing larg­er in scope, like A For­tu­nate Age. I wasn’t able to focus on it [before 9/11]…That pro­found nation­al tragedy put the fear of God into me that all of this could end at any time and I have to do the things that I want to do now and not be dis­tract­ed by oth­er obligations.”

Rakoff’s nov­el touch­es upon the events of Sep­tem­ber 11, but takes a sur­pris­ing and poignant approach, delib­er­ate­ly not hav­ing any­thing dra­mat­ic or dev­as­tat­ing hap­pen to the char­ac­ters. Rather, the char­ac­ters Lil and Emi­ly see this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make changes in their lives. To become more focused and less friv­o­lous, like the author her­self. This might be some­what com­mon in Gen X‑ers, who saw this thing go down and thought, that could have been me.”

Rakoff s next project will be choos­ing which of her nov­els-in-progress to focus on; one is set in North Africa and fol­lows a Peace Corps vol­un­teer who encoun­ters a gueril­la group. The oth­er is set in upstate New York, a lit­tle clos­er to home.” In the mean­time, she is enjoy­ing life with her hus­band, young son, and new­born daughter.

Discussion Questions


Simon & Schuster

1. A For­tu­nate Age chron­i­cles the lives of a group of friends in their late twen­ties strug­gling to carve out careers in the arts and stay afloat finan­cial­ly while feel­ing an unex­pect­ed pull to get mar­ried, have chil­dren, have some of the com­forts with which they’d grown up. Talk about some of the piv­otal moments in your own start­ing-out years and how Joan­na Smith Rakoff cap­tures sim­i­lar moments in the novel.

2. How does the time peri­od in which the nov­el is set affect the lives of the char­ac­ters? Describe the shift that hap­pens after the fall of the dot-coms and after the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

3. Dis­cuss how the New York set­ting, par­tic­u­lar­ly Brook­lyn, shapes the nov­el. What was hap­pen­ing in Brook­lyn at this time? Do you think this sto­ry is unique to New York or is it universal?

4. Do you think Smith Rakoff was influ­enced by the great Vic­to­ri­an nov­els? If so dis­cuss the books, the writ­ers, and the ways in which their influ­ence is appar­ent in Smith Rakoff s work. What are some of the com­mon themes?

5. While the main char­ac­ters are all in their start­ing-out years, the par­ents of the char­ac­ters play a sig­nif­i­cant role in the nov­el, and because the Pere­grines are sig­nif­i­cant­ly old­er than the oth­er par­ents, there are real­ly three gen­er­a­tions depict­ed here. Dis­cuss the gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ences exhib­it­ed. How do Lil, Beth, Emi­ly, Dave, Tal, and Sadie reflect their par­ents’ beliefs and ways of life? How do they resist or reject them?

6. How does Smith Rakoff approach sto­ry­telling? How does she intro­duce char­ac­ters and devel­op their indi­vid­ual sto­ry­lines while mov­ing the nov­el for­ward? How does she han­dle time?

7. How do the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters define suc­cess? Which char­ac­ters are suc­cess­ful? What are the sources of their great­est fears and their great­est joys?

8. A For­tu­nate Age is a chron­i­cle of a gen­er­a­tion. Do you think Smith Rakoff is crit­i­cal of her char­ac­ters? Is the nov­el a gen­tle satire of this gen­er­a­tion? If so, dis­cuss the ways in which this satire is evident.

9. Dis­cuss the title. What makes this par­tic­u­lar time peri­od for­tu­nate or unfor­tu­nate? Could the title also be applied to the age of the char­ac­ters? If so, in what way? Do you think the title is iron­ic? What oth­er titles does A For­tu­nate Age recall?

10. A For­tu­nate Age is loose­ly based on Mary McCarthy’s clas­sic nov­el The Group. What are some of the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences between the two books? Dis­cuss some of the cul­tur­al par­al­lels between New York of the 1930s and New York of the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s. How has the role of women changed?