In post-9/11 world, Generation Y grapples with aging

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2009
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Much like Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City’’ and Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,’’ Joanna Smith Rakoff’s novel focuses on a group of intelligent, idealistic young people newly graduated from elite colleges trying to make lives for themselves in the big city.

Rakoff’s debut has a decidedly autobiographical slant. Like her characters, Rakoff is an Oberlin College grad who settled in New York. And, again, like her characters, Rakoff has an admirable sense of ambition. In depicting the lives of these 20-somethings, her novel attempts to capture the hopes, often-grating sense of entitlement, progressive politics, hypocrisy, and everyday disappointments of a generation. Rakoff also offers a detailed portrait of the city during a fascinating time, the days before and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“A Fortunate Age’’ begins with a wedding between Lil and Tuck, who met at Oberlin and bonded over poetry. The couple’s college friends attend, and Rakoff introduces us to each. They include a would-be musician (Dave), a struggling actress (Emily), a young academic (Beth), and an aspiring book editor (Sadie). As Rakoff makes clear, the college friends are also rivals, constantly measuring their own accomplishments against those of their friends and against their own lofty expectations.

Rakoff’s novel might better be titled “Adulthood Happens,’’ as her characters struggle to build careers, mostly in the arts, maintain stable romantic relationships, often with each other, and keep their youthful idealism in tact despite the prosaic pressures of financial security, marriage, and parenthood. These are absurdly well-educated people, who like to quote Sylvia Plath, Soren Kierkegaard, and Betty Friedan to each other during conversations; but they discover that such book learning hardly endows them with the kind of practical knowledge required to live a successful life in the real world.

Emily, perhaps the novel’s most memorably three-dimensional character, is an actress with dreams of Broadway stardom. While auditioning, she works as a temp and later a bartender. Rakoff brings us inside Emily’s world as she slowly realizes her acting dreams aren’t happening. After a painful breakup with her would-be rock star boyfriend, Emily allows her mentally unstable sister Clara to move in with her. Rakoff shows us how both Emily and Clara experience a breakdown at the same time. When a friendly, good-looking psychiatrist arrives to save the day and marry Emily (while offering Clara free treatment), it feels like a rescue fantasy, with the helpless heroine saved by divine intervention.

Meanwhile, Lil is not rescued. She and Tuck have a difficult marriage, with Lil losing her identity as she throws herself into supporting his stalled writing career. The novel ends with Lil dead from the flu, and a coming together (like the book’s opening at her wedding) of her Oberlin friends at a memorial service. What had begun at a fairy tale wedding ends with the darkness of loss (McCarthy’s “The Group’’ has a similar opening and closing), with the Oberlin group initiated into the adult world of muddling through.

By book’s end, failed actress Emily has an epiphany: Fear “was not something with which she and her friends had ever had to cope. They lived in such comfort, such luxury. In college, they’d been aware of their position of relative privilege . . . now they got annoyed when their cappuccinos arrived without the requisite amount of foam.’’ Rakoff’s novel may not become the definitive portrait of Generation Y struggling in the post-9/11 world, but it remains an absorbing, if at times sprawling, story of a group of idealistic friends coming of age in the big city.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer living in Dorchester.

A FORTUNATE AGE By Joanna Smith Rakoff

Scribner, 399 pp., $26

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