The jacket copy for Joanna Smith Rakoff’s A Fortunate Age compares the book to Mary McCarthy’s The Group; in the acknowledgments, the author calls it “an homage” to that 1963 novel. Neither reference prepares the reader for what follows: a scene-by-scene replay of McCarthy’s work. Rakoff recapitulates The Group’s plot and characters with painstaking, near-compulsive devotion.
McCarthy tracks the fortunes of eight women after they graduate from Vassar in ’33. All are from well-heeled families, and the novel offers a sociological study of urban life among the affluent classes at the height of the Depression, doing so with powerful feminist undertones. A typically caustic insight has a new mother, left alone with her newborn in the hospital, checking her watch again and again for the time when the nurse will come and free her from her infant: “She felt, to her shame, that he was a piece of hospital property that had been dumped on her and abandoned—they would never come to take him away.” The array of acute portraits—ice maiden Lakey, chubby, genial heiress Pokey, sexless bluestocking Helena, and biddable, earnestly leftist Priss—give the book its lasting appeal.
A Fortunate Age is about a group of six Oberlin graduates negotiating love and careers in the years 1998–2004. Rakoff shifts from one point of view to another, her course, and the lives of her characters, dictated by the choices made by McCarthy decades ago. For the most part, the revamped plot still works, although in some places coherence takes a backseat to fidelity. Rakoff has changed two of the female friends from The Group to men and melded four of McCarthy’s characters (Lakey, Pokey, Priss, and Helena above) into one, Sadie. Sadie is the group’s alpha (Lakey), comes from great wealth (Pokey), breast-feeds her child (Priss), and has a tricky, too-colorful mother (Helena). Yet in all these hats, Sadie is . . . nice.
Through thick and thin, Rakoff’s people preserve a pleasant reasonableness, which is a tribute perhaps to the author’s successful socialization but not to her insight into human character. It’s a challenge to tell Rakoff’s nice young people apart. One cannot imagine Rakoff admitting of any of her characters, as McCarthy does, that “she had a ruthless hatred of poor people”— or a hatred of anyone at all. A memorably painful sequence in which a shy girl is fitted for a diaphragm, only to leave it under a park bench when her new lover stands her up, is replaced by a gossipy breakfast (the diaphragm-fitting) and a happy marriage (the jilting). Where McCarthy is chillingly unsparing, Rakoff is cuddly. Sometimes, she abandons pretense and brazenly writes pulp romance: “She still, somehow, desired him: the broad expanse of his chest, the low rasp of his voice, even the way he held himself remote from her.”
Of course, what we would hope for from this rewriting is a view on how things have changed since 1933. In places, Rakoff tries to deliver this. McCarthy begins with Kay and Harald’s pointedly unconventional wedding. The parents of the bride are absent, there are no printed invitations, no honeymoon, no gown or veil. Rakoff opens with a wedding that is presented as unconventional purely because none of the liberal, smarty-pants Oberlin women believe in marriage. Or so Rakoff says. But her women are stonily apolitical and intellectually disengaged. Their idea of literature is Sylvia Plath, but they secretly prefer to thumb through In Style. We must strain to believe this gaggle find marriage outmoded while watching them ooh and aah over wedding dresses. Here and elsewhere, the social commentary seems forced, false, almost reluctant.
Rakoff has a bad habit of pulling McCarthy’s punches. The Group’s villainous, wife-beating, narcissistic, prolifically adulterous Harald is transformed into Rakoff’s whiny Tuck, who has a single affair and sometimes says inconsiderate things but is otherwise harmless. Instead of being alienated from her baby (“a piece of hospital property”), Sadie discovers that child rearing is the be-all and end-all, such unequivocal bliss that she has no desire to do anything else. In McCarthy’s ending, superrich, superbeautiful superbitch Lakey comes out of the closet as a lesbian. The Group itself is revealed to have been the creation of her libido; she used her charisma and social clout at Vassar to gather attractive girls. In Rakoff’s version, the (male and supernice) Lakey character returns from Israel and reveals that he has become a more devout Jew than before. Understandably, no one minds or cares, although they do evince mild surprise. Metaphorically speaking, this version of The Group may seem sluggish and apathetic, but at least it won’t pee in the house anymore.
In its own right, A Fortunate Age is readable and pleasant, if somewhat meandering. Within its limitations (those of light fiction aimed at women), the psychology is accurate and interesting, and one never doubts Rakoff’s intelligence—she may be short of vision, but not brains. The adventures of her characters are involving, and the characters themselves are sympathetic to a fault. She also has a sharp eye for detail, especially where this relates to clothes, meals, and interior decoration. In short, the book is an acceptable literature substitute for the reader who craves respectability while secretly preferring to leaf through In Style.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done (HarperCollins, 2003) and Cake (Chatto & Windus, 2006).