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To Be Young And 'Fortunate' In 1990s Boomtime

May 22, 2009

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A Fortunate Age, Joanna Smith Rakoff's sweeping debut novel about 20-something Oberlin grads living in New York City, may turn out to be the long-awaited book that perfectly captures the '90s, that time of social and financial excess that set the stage for the current economic collapse.

College friends Beth, Sadie, Lil, Tuck, Dave, Tal and Emily are opinionated, hyper-educated and full of pithy observations about life. Even as they live their scuffling, post-graduation lives in tiny Brooklyn flats, they feel obliged to provide a snarkily ironic running commentary on just about everything. Sadie rolls her eyes at girls carrying yoga mats and mocks a friend whose toenail polish is the color of "mold." But despite their experiments with advanced sexual practices and edgy lifestyles, these refugees from suburbia are as deeply concerned with propriety, marriage, education and money as any finicky matron in an E.M. Forster novel.

They want to make it in their various arty fields; their carefully forged identities depend on it. But for the most part, they lack the gritty drive of the truly successful. Years pass. One succeeds through hard work, another through luck. Two stumble into happy marriages. Two linger in a quietly desperate, tragically hip limbo as awful as any hell.

Through it all, Smith Rakoff's characters — the sometimes cock-sure, sometimes appealing, often annoying but always earnest bright young things who, like so many before and since, stake it all on New York — remain deeply human. For a brief time, they live the whirligig feeling of endless potential. That glorious sense of anything-goes disappears for them, as it did for so many, when terrorists take out the Twin Towers. That devastating upheaval makes this a novel of manners that matters.

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A Fortunate Age
By Joanna Smith Rakoff
Hardcover, 416 pages
Scribner
List price: $26

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