Like The Group, Mary McCarthy's classic tale about coming of age in New York, Joanna Smith Rakoff 's richly drawn and immensely satisfying first novel details the lives of a group of Oberlin graduates whose ambitions and friendships threaten to unravel as they chase their dreams, shed their youth, and build their lives in Brooklyn during the late 1990s and the turn of the twenty-first century.
There's Lil, a would-be scholar whose marriage to an egotistical writer initially brings the group back together (and ultimately drives it apart); Beth, who struggles to let go of her old beau Dave, a onetime piano prodigy trapped by his own insecurity; Emily, an actor perpetually on the verge of success -- and starvation -- who grapples with her jealousy of Tal, whose acting career has taken off. At the center of their orbit is wry, charismatic Sadie Peregrine, who coolly observes her friends' mistakes but can't quite manage to avoid making her own. As they begin their careers, marry, and have children, they must navigate the shifting dynamics of their friendships and of the world around them.
Set against the backdrop of the vast economic and political changes of the era -- from the decadent age of dot-com millionaires to the sobering post-September 2001 landscape -- Smith Rakoff's deeply affecting characters and incisive social commentary are reminiscent of the great Victorian novels. This brilliant and ambitious debut captures a generation and heralds the arrival of a bold and important new writer.
Rakoff's debut novel is a ponderous, meandering and nostalgic portrait of a postcollegiate group of Gen-Xers awkwardly navigating weddings, pregnancies, betrayals and funerals in pre- and post-9/11 New York City. At the center of the group is Sadie Peregrine, a rising book editor who is having trouble reconciling her personal and professional ambitions. Rounding out her circle is Lil, a depressed and flailing scholar; Emily, a starving actress; Tal, a successful actor; Beth, a would-be English prof; and Dave, an enigmatic musician and Beth's ex-boyfriend. The writing is episodic and relies heavily on exposition, and many character interactions and plot developments occur off the page and are referred to only indirectly. At her best, Rakoff offers a carefully studied glimpse into her characters' minds. Too often, though, the large cast and the hopscotch chronology come at the expense of narrative tension, of which there isn't much. Thirty-somethings looking back wistfully on their 20s and their struggles with the vicissitudes of adulthood might get a bang out of this.