Nothing, Nothing will Keep Us Together

Joanna Rakoff
Bloomsbury, July 2015, RRP $32.99

I took up A Fortunate Age under considerable misapprehension as to the time period in which it is set. Somehow missing both the details in the blurb and the first line, which literally features the word “1998″*, I launched into it believing it was about my generation. I am 26 right now and was interested to “see what an author some twenty years my senior thought about it all. Would it involve angering stereotypes? Would I find it self-deprecatingly humorous? Despite very quickly correcting the flaws in my understanding, and after fighting a bout of cynicism about reading a book about 20-somethings in the late 90s, I decided to persevere. And admittedly, I expected to hate this book. I didn’t.

On the face of it, Joanna Rakoff’s novel about coming of age is not something I would have chosen to read. It is contemporary fiction, a genre I generally dislike, and once the immediate connection with myself had gone**, I expected I would despise the characters in all their trust-funded, New York whininess. Yet something in Rakoff’s confiding, urgent tone, which reminded me a little of 19th century novelists, kept me going. Though I found most of the characters irritating and some themes and elements troubling, I enjoyed A Fortunate Age. I enjoyed it rather a lot.

I think part of the reason at least is just how foreign the privileged city life of these people is to me. The world of the late 90s and early 2000s has become so thoroughly alien that I have trouble believing the world was ever like that. Of course these are privileged characters who remain, despite their efforts at attaining social consciousness, so unaware of their wealth and privilege. The world was, even in the late 90s, never like this for the actual poor. It was quite annoying how often these trust-funded people bemoaned their poverty. They have jobs! Real, actual, paying jobs! Often in the industries they want to work in! Their struggles are so alien to the problems facing people my age in entering the jobs market and attaining any kind of job security, let alone in industries they want to work in.***

It’s also still bamboozling to me to think of my friends, or anyone my age, getting married. A Fortunate Age starts with a wedding and soon there are babies, too. How. Ostensibly about the struggles of facing adulthood and the mistakes we all make in growing up, Rakoff’s novel depicts people who are remarkably together, financially capable, and successful in their careers. I found myself wondering whether the story could be remotely accurate, but perhaps it is; I get the sense it is at least partially biographical. What a difference 15 years and a complete economic collapse make. And also, I suppose, being a rich New Yorker.

Part of my enjoyment of the novel stems from the fact that it is a glimpse into an age that is now gone, and the sense of its end is a constant theme in the novel. In later stages, we see the character Sadie’s worldview shattered by the events following September 11. Earlier in the novel, the beginnings of the decline of print media and the Dot Com bust also make appearances, bringing with them increased job insecurity. The city of New York is also changing, gentrifying and genericising, which several of the characters lament unironically, even though they contibute to it.

I did take great issue with Rakoff’s portrayals of mental illness and personality disorders, which form a fairly large portion of Emily’s story. Emily’s sister, Clara, is mentally ill and is diagnosed at first with bipolar disorder. This is soon dismissed, and her doctors conclude she must be a borderline personality instead. The possibility of comorbidity doesn’t seem to be considered. I’m not sure how far psychological science had progressed by 1998, but surely that was a thing then. And this is just the least of the problems.

Clara, and the novel’s other mentally ill character, who is heavily implied to be taking antidepressants because they’re fashionable, are not only unsympathetic, but seem to be blamed for their illnesses. Of course caring for those with mental health issues is trying, and of course some mentally ill people are arseholes, but Clara in particular gets the rough end of the stick, with her hopelessness at managing her own affairs blamed on her, rather than being an aspect of her illness. Her unresponsiveness or unwillingness to respond to treatment is portrayed as a failing on her part, without nuance, and only the hint that it might be her condition hindering her. She is also blamed when her parents bankrupt themselves for her care, rather than the frankly ludicrous health care system in the United States. And of course, none of her family members are offered any assistance themselves as to how to live with her or help her handle her illness—none of them consider her anything but a burden and Emily is probably supposed to seem both noble and naïve for caring for Clara. Most alarmingly, discussion of treating Clara seems to disregard entirely her right to autonomy. It is not even brought up.

This can’t really be explained away as a matter of perspective on Emily’s part, either, especially since she eventually becomes a neuropsychologist herself. All of the characters consider, and fear, the possibility of mental illness in themselves and their friends. It is very disheartening to see a novel take such an unconsidered view on mental health, especially when it is a central plot point. A little more research, not only into clinical signs of the various conditions Rakoff portrays, but into living with the disorders, might have done wonders.

There are other aspects that receive short shrift, such as feminism and indeed involvement in charitable causes; characters are implied to be involved in social movements more for the attention and kudos it brings than a desire to do genuine good. Interest in politics is portrayed as somewhat self-indulgent. However, this at least could be regarded as an element of the characterisation of those who mention it.

Nonetlheless, I couldn’t stop reading A Fortunate Age. Joanna Rakoff has achieved something remarkable with this novel. I’m amazed that I, who generally dislikes the genre; has huge issues with several aspects of the text; and actually didn’t care all that much what happens to any of the characters, nonetheless could not put the novel down. The language is amicable, the world vivid. For fans of the genre—and apparently non-fans—A Fortunate Age is definitely worth a look.

*This is probably not the most promising indication I could give of how I actually read things. I am a lamentably inattentive reader at times.

**Typical Gen-Y.

***I say this is as one of the few people of about my age I know who does, in fact, have a full time and permanent job. It’s only tangentially related to any of my qualifications, but I like it and, hey, I have a job.

About Cecilia Quirk

Cecilia Quirk's ultimate goal in life is to become 'Avatar: The Last Airbender's' Uncle Iroh, or as close a proximation as possible for a redhaired white woman. Or Granny Weatherwax. Or hell, both. She enjoys green tea, long walks, manipulating causality and afternoons at home. She lives in the Magical Kingdom of the Roundabouts and works as a wild gnome herder.
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