Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"A Fortunate Age"

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel A Fortunate Age, which was a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she's written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time Out New York, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals.

She applied the Page 69 Test to A Fortunate Age, now available in paperback, and reported the following:
Though it’s loosely based on Mary McCarthy’s The Group, my novel, A Fortunate Age, owes much to big Victorian novels like Daniel Deronda, The Forsyte Saga, and anything by Dickens or Gaskell. Which means that the sixty-ninth page is, in a way, a rather tiny and specific fragment of a sprawling, complicated plot, involving a six different characters. On that page, one of my heroines, Beth Bernstein, is having a sort of miniature nervous breakdown. After four years in Milwaukee, she’s moved to New York, ostensibly to teach and finish some research for her dissertation—she’s a pop culture scholar, writing on Dark Shadows—but really to be close to her friends from college. Not knowing the city well—though she grew up in Westchester—she takes an apartment in Queens, only to find that her friends are all far away—in Brooklyn—and don’t relish the idea of traveling out to her neighborhood, which lacks the accoutrements necessary to ersatz bohemian life (coffee shops, bars, bistros).

At this exact moment (on page sixty-nine, that is), Beth is realizing that the life she thought awaited her in New York might not exist: A promised job, teaching at the New School, has dematerialized (through her own ineptitude). Her college boyfriend, Dave, is as much of a jerk as she remembered. Most distressingly, her friends seem to have grown in different and distressing directions. To add insult to injury, she’s discovered that Will Chase, the abrasively charismatic man she met at her friend Lil’s wedding a week earlier—and impetuously slept with—has a rather complicated history, which he’d somehow failed to explain to her over dinner (and before bed).

She is, in other words, furious, alone, and sad. And having trouble getting out of bed. On the previous pages, she’d forced herself to get dressed and take a walk around her barren new neighborhood. Despite her chronic asthma, she buys a pack of Lucky Strikes at the decrepit local candy store, though she’d made it through college without so much as picking up a cigarette. When she returns to her apartment, she has no idea what to do with the pack—or herself. Here’s what happens next:
Heart lurching, she clopped down the stairs again and strode out into the bright sun, and quickly walked two blocks south to the Twin Donut, where she bought a paper cup of watery coffee, a copy of the Times, and a chocolate cruller. Thus armed, she returned, again, to her building, smiling cheerily at the old ladies taking up their posts on the sidewalk as she pulled open the heavy glass door. This was what normal people did in the morning: Read the paper. Ate doughnuts. But she was not, she reminded herself, a normal person. She was alone. Jobless. Friendless. Abandoned. In Queens.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, she thought, running up the stairs, though she knew she shouldn’t, not without her inhaler in hand. Fuck Will. Fuck Dave. Fuck Emily for telling me all that about Will….Fuck Sadie for being so fucking judgmental. A thought rose, skittishly, to the surface of her brain, slowly taking shape as she sat down at the kitchen table, her breath coming in sharp, jagged bursts, and peeled the plastic wrap off her cigarette pack. She was, she thought, incapable of trusting her instincts. She’d disliked Will when she first began talking to him…but out of politeness she’s ignored her initial impression and given him a chance. And she’d been wrong, hadn’t she? Yes, he was a cad and an asshole….

But the weird thing was: the same held true for her other friends, her best friends. She’d been skeptical of them—each and every one—at first. Only Sadie had she loved from the start: her large green eyes, the thick French notebooks in which she’d jotted thoughtfully throughout Haskell’s Intro to Jewish Studies. Lil had struck her as gawky and overloquacious. Tal, quiet and remote. Emily, silly and way too cool. Dave she’d hated for the first year she knew him. During their two English classes together—101 (Approaches to Literature) and 200 (Introduction to Drama)—he was one of those guys who had to argue every point, thinking himself hilarious and brilliant. The worst of it was that others actually bought his act: he had a little following, who backed him up when he began harping on relativism and laughed at his acid jokes, tipping back on their chairs, knees against the seminar table.
Is this typical of the rest of the novel? Yes, certainly, in that it follows a character down a particular line of thought, circling closer and closer to the sources of her distress. But it’s atypical, too, in that the novel is episodic, alighting with different characters at different points. So if you were to instead open the novel at page 79, you’d find yourself with Beth’s friend Lil, bemoaning the fact that her husband, Tuck, has just lost his job at a much-hyped new magazine. If you turned to page 169, you’d find yourself with Beth again, shopping for a wedding dress with her mother in Scarsdale. And if you turned to 269, you’d find her friend Emily thinking about her crazy sister coming to live her. And so on and so forth.
Read an excerpt from A Fortunate Age, and learn more about the book and author at Joanna Smith Rakoff's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue