Joanna Smith Rakoff hasn’t had a Lillet in at least a year. Or so she says, after I point out that the drink enjoys a small but noteworthy role in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, about six young Oberlin College graduates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’re at Cafe Figaro, a French restaurant with red booths and cloudy mirrors down the block from Skylight Books. In a couple of hours, Rakoff will read there as part of her west coast paperback tour. Until then, she has agreed to share the pâté with me; we’ve already discussed an English professor we’re both still close to.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m proud to be part of the Oberlin Mafia (class of ’02 in the house!) I’m always updating my list of famous alumni–Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and Gary Shteyngart, to name a few–and if I see a car with an Oberlin bumper sticker, I will do a French Connection-style chase to get the driver’s attention. I enjoy telling my husband that my alma mater is way better than his; at the University of Chicago they built the atomic bomb; at Oberlin they built an Environmental Studies Center that runs on human waste. My four years at Oberlin made me the thinker I am today. It was only a matter of time before I read A Fortunate Age.
And yet, I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, and its connection to Oberlin was only nominally what I loved about it. For starters, it feels simultaneously contemporary, with its references to Cat Power, and its spot-on descriptions of Brooklyn at the turn of the twenty-first century, and also deliciously old-fashioned, as sprawling as Middlemarch and as readable as The Age of Innocence. Rakoff told me she was highly influenced by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, “the ultimate skewering of the middle class,” and A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell, which takes place on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. It’s one of Rakoff’s favorite novels. “What I love about it is that it’s very much about the cultural mood at the time, but the political goings-on, the historical backdrop, is woven in,” she says. “You see the way the forces of society and culture affect and influence these characters in a way that’s so subtle and wonderful.” Rakoff could very well be talking about her own novel, for it captures perfectly a particular time and place: New York from the late nineties tech boom, to the post-9/11 world of the new century. The characters are shaped by the city and this era, and as readers we pay witness to their evolutions. There’s a keen sense that this isn’t merely a personal drama about marriage, work, and making art, but also a book about what it means to exist in the world today. For instance, one character, Sadie Peregrine, isn’t just a mother of two, she is a mother of two in an increasingly frightening world:
Each day, some fresh horror arose: The train bombings in Madrid. The endless car bombings and suicide bombings in Iraq and Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, with their roster of civilian victims (children; always the children). The Vietnam-style rapes and massacres of Iraqi families–and the accompanying photos of the sweet-faced Virginia boys who’d perpetrated them. The kidnappings, all over the Middle East and North Africa, of journalists and contractors and translators. The beheadings–videotaped, aired on television–in Iraq. Everywhere, everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Typing this passage, I’m struck by how much darker it is than the opening of the novel, which begins with Lil’s wedding, four years after college graduation, its tone comic, almost jaunty. By the end of the novel, these characters have, without a doubt, reached adulthood, and it isn’t always a smooth transition.
Rakoff’s novel poses a central question: what do you hold onto from your idealistic youth, and what do you shed? In my mind, A Fortunate Age is a Post-Campus Novel: the campus, and what it signifies, has stayed with these characters, long after they’ve left it. For them, college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift. In writing A Fortunate Age, Joanna says, “I was thinking a lot about the ways that going to a liberal arts college—specifically Oberlin, but you could say the same for other colleges of its kind, shapes you.” She says:
These colleges are utopian environments, in a way that a lot of these larger universities are not. You are instilled with these wonderful values and a wonderful sense of yourself, particularly if you are in the arts. And then you go out into the world, and it can be crushing. Perhaps more so in New York than everywhere else, but to see how commerce is what drives everything.
Joanna is a fan of the campus novel, particularly David Lodge’s work. She says she wanted to write a contemporary comedy of manners, which is difficult to do nowadays, because, at least in the US, “social mores are all over the place.” She points out that campus novels are so appealing because they’re about a closed society with certain rules. And maybe that’s why, in the world of her book, there’s “a Whartonian element to keeping up socially.” Lil, Sadie, and the others, they’ve got to compromise, and make sacrifices, in order to stay afloat in their world. “It’s indicative of the time period I’m chronicling,” she says.
Because the novel shifts perspective between five of the six characters, we get to see these characters both from the outside, and the in. We also see them through each other’s eyes, which can be both illuminating and alienating–sometimes friends get you, and sometimes, they don’t even come close. As the reader, we get to know these characters quite deeply, but never all at once. After spending a chapter with one, the narrative alights its glance on another, and we don’t return to the original character’s point of view for some time, if at all. This technique requires us to supply the rest of their story. Is Beth happy with Will? Is Dave going to stay in the band? How do they really feel? One can imagine both a negative, and a positive outcome, usually a mingling of both. Joanna tells me this was part of her plan, based in on the structure of The Group by Mary McCarthy, which A Fortunate Age was inspired by:
What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse of a character—it’s kind of a Modernist project: to give you a glimpse of a character and then allow you to bore into that character’s head. I wanted each character to start off in an almost superficial way—see that character dealing with almost trite, gossipy things…their friends, their dress. As the chapter went on, I wanted to go deeper and deeper into their heads and see what their lives are like.
She is quick to point out, too, that the characters in her novel are affected by Oberlin in a totally different way than McCarthy’s characters are by Vassar. I asked Rakoff about one particular character in the novel, Caitlin, who also graduated from Oberlin with the others, but isn’t a friend of theirs–in fact, you might even describe her as a villain. We are never given access to her point of view. Caitlin wields a holier-than-thou attitude, and is blind to her own hypocritical behavior. “My initial draft of the book was more harsh and satirical with regard to all the characters, not just Caitlin,” Rakoff says. “Later drafts softened them, but not with Caitlin—and it’s not satirical license…I know people just like her. There’s always going to be that person who drinks the Kool-Aid, and it stays in her system. Part of Caitlin’s problem is that she’s so insecure and over confident, and she is trying so hard to be counter-cultural that she’s become dictatorial.”
I smile because I’ve too met people similar to Caitlin, though fewer and fewer with each year away from college. I ask Joanna about the choice to write about people in their twenties. Joanna laughs, and tells me about a friend who tried to convince her not to write the book. Her friend said she didn’t want to read about young people in New York. “I am that person!” she said. For a time, Joanna heeded her advice, until she couldn’t any longer. She wanted to tell this story.
[As a reviewer] I was doing this really heavy volume of reading, and I would get these novels about young women, usually in NY. They were just ridiculous. They were all about buying…Prada shoes, Gucci bags. I don’t know anyone whose life is like that. I don’t know anyone who really lives like this. I kept waiting for that novel to come my way, that was going to be about people I knew, and it never came.
A Fortunate Age isn’t about people I know–not exactly–but the lives explored therein are nevertheless rich and complicated, sometimes absurd, sometimes appalling, sometimes beautiful. It felt true to me. I’m glad Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote this book into existence. I can now add her to my illustrious list of alumni.