The Emperor’s Children

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Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel follows a group of friends through the trials and triumphs of post-college life in New York.

“With their shining hair and bright, clear eyes, they, all of them, were the dewy flowers of the upper middle class…” writes Joanna Smith Rakoff in the first chapter of her superb, acutely insightful first novel, A Fortunate Age. “But this group, our group, wanted nothing to do with money, the whiff of which had, they thought, spoiled their brash bourgeois parents… [they] were interested in art, though they wouldn’t have put it like that.”

Rakoff, who has contributed her keen commentary on contemporary society to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Vogue and The Oprah Magazine, has written a modern-day version of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, or an intellectual Sex and the City. Acknowledging her debts to Sylvia Plath, Dawn Powell, and Mary McCarthy, Rakoff brilliantly captures and tracks the lives of a group of Oberlin graduates in New York around the turn of the 21st century, as they pursue their dreams, marry, and start families, crossing the boundary into “the difficulties and practicalities of adulthood.”

The five protagonists are Lil, the pretty poet, whose wedding cheerfully opens the novel but later catapults into tragedy (“She was a perfect, devoted, obsessive friend, who always remembered birthdays and brought too many perfectly chosen gifts… The light of her affection shined too brightly for any one friend to bear”); Beth, a loveable academic who struggles between her love for a complicated Englishman and a narcissistic musician (“Beth had a nurturing personality and blossomed when she had someone to take care of; and yet, by the same token, she was also a fragile girl and needed someone to look out for her, to remind her to rest and take her vitamins”); Emily, a struggling actress who lives with her mentally ill sister, and whose life contrasts starkly with that of Tal, whose budding acting career takes him all over the world; and Sadie Peregrine, “with the aspect of a serious child—a child from a Dutch painting, prematurely aged by the rigors and politics of court.”

Joanna Smith Rakoff

Joanna Smith Rakoff

Although ultimately Sadie’s story, Rakoff’s novel rotates through these viewpoints, making for intensely and vividly imagined character portraits. She is particularly skillful at illustrating the dilemma these women face between ambition and independence on the one hand, love and dependency on the other:

“But once you settled on someone—settled in with someone—you lost the contentment and confidence that attracted him in the first place. You began worrying about his happiness, and his goals and wants, so that you internalized them, and your own happiness and goals and wants were banished to some dark and musty part of yourself.”

The different ways the friends navigate these choices affect their relationships and generate tension as they compare themselves to one another:

“They were, [Emily] supposed, the Ghosts of Marriage Future, with their glib, superficial chatter; they seemed positively terrified that she might engage them in some sort of real conversation and pierce the fragile bubble of their unions. And yet—and yet—she was jealous, stupidly, embarrassingly jealous of their clichéd resentments and their domestic squabbles and even their boredom…”

Rakoff is also very funny, a gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) mocker of various bourgeois disguises. The vegan/wannabe-reactionary Caitlin Green inhabits an unnecessarily modest apartment with her trust-fund boyfriend, “subsisting on various grains and nuts and legumes.” In a similar vein is the “mommies group” Sadie encounters, “which met each Wednesday afternoon at various pet-free, peanut-free apartments, to drink watery decaf, debate the merits of Huggies versus Pampers (versus the sleeper, Seventh Generation), and compare notes about the various tradespeople they employed to renovate and clean their apartments.”

One of the achievements of A Fortunate Age is its ability to encompass so many different tones and moods. Like the lives it so compassionately describes, Rakoff’s story is deeply complex in its layering, twisting and unpredictable, beautiful and magical, as well as dark.

Ultimately, this is a novel about growing up, about a group of young people waking up to the realities of adult life. When they reunite for a funeral, Sadie reflects upon the six years that have past since Lil’s wedding. “How long ago it seemed, how impervious they’d thought themselves to the pedestrian dangers of adult life… How stupid they had been.” This is an important debut from a serious and accomplished new voice. A Fortunate Age will stay with you long after you’ve read the final, heart-wrenching page.

Sophie Powell is the author of the novel The Mushroom Man, as well as short stories and two screenplays. She teaches creative writing at Boston College and Grub Street and is assistant director of Abroad Writers Conferences. More from this author →