A Fortunate Age by Joanna Rakoff, book review: A much-anticipated debut novel disappoints

The circumstances that surround six young Oberlin graduates are completely regurgitated from Rakoff's memoir

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The Independent Culture

I adored Joanna Rakoff's memoir, My Salinger Year – loved its style, her humour, descriptions of New York – perhaps it helped that Rakoff focused on her 20s as a writer in the big city, but I really felt I could relate.

Unsurprising then, that I was excited to get my hands on Rakoff's debut novel, A Fortunate Age. Surely after her previous success, it would be impossible for the author to ruin the story of fictional twentysomethings struggling to make their way in late 1990's New York.

To say this book is a disappointment would be an understatement. From the off, it's clear the circumstances that surround the six young Oberlin graduates are nothing but watered down versions of Rakoff's own experiences, completely regurgitated from her memoir.

Having read about 23-year-old Rakoff having no sink in her flat and washing up her dishes in the bath, I smile as Emily, one of the many vacant characters in A Fortunate Age does the same.

Sadie, who is described as beautiful with dark curly hair, is noticeably the least fallible of the group, seeming to move effortlessly through the story's years. She also works in a publishing house with an uncanny resemblance to the one Rakoff started out in... Not because of this pattern, but perhaps exacerbated by it, Rakoff's characters largely appear to me as vacuous and unbelievable.

Having absorbed My Salinger Year with undivided love and attention, I cannot take this novel seriously. If it is possible to put aside the ghost of that book leering behind A Fortunate Age's pages, the plot struggles. After setting the tone with the wedding of Lil and Tuck at the beginning, the narrative jumps forward a few months unexpectedly, and continues to do so for its duration. Characters' stories leap days, weeks, months in advance without warning – which a generous reader might perceive as clever or brave, but really is just very frustrating.

Moving forward from the wedding, a second narrative brings a laughable sex scene that for one horrid moment leads me to wonder if for the rest of the novel I'd have to wince my way through some sort of 50 Shades replica. But like many of the anecdotes, the scene is dropped, never returned to and seemingly forgotten by all.

I cannot help but wonder if Rakoff had planned A Fortunate Age for the big screen. It's easy to pick out Girls-style detail that I can imagine in some similar television programme or film, but just don't work in the same way on paper.

I cannot relate to these characters' relationships. Dave kisses his cousin – who admits she is from a family who have all married their second cousins – and she doesn't freak out. In fact, she cops off with Dave's friend and the kiss is never spoken of again.

The group of friends get engaged, marry intermittently, become pregnant by men who are not their fiancés and yet there is no shock, no real emotion displayed. The way in which Rakoff's characters are able to move on without protest or any sense of irony causes me to wonder if I am living some overly complicated life. Am I a square for not understanding such incest, adultery or the ease by which one simply finds a husband and gets married? I am not convinced.

Of course, there are moments of insight. Rakoff illustrates perfectly that early adult feeling of indecision, of feeling paralysed by possibilities that we don't know how to reach. In the narrative of Dave the musician, Rakoff writes: "The trouble was that while he had very strong feelings about what he didn't want to do, he only possessed a very vague idea of what it he did want to do."

It's clear that Rakoff understands her audience, but the novel's messy storyline and lack of precision – which came across so strongly in My Salinger Year – lets her down.

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