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
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.