I thoroughly enjoyed My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her time as a literary agent’s assistant, and was pleased to hear that her novel was to be published in the UK. It’s been available in the States for a few years although its reception seems to have been somewhat mixed. I’d also heard that it was a tribute to Mary McCarthy’s celebrated 1963 book The Group which still sits on my bookshelves after several readings. I’ve long been a sucker for novels that take a group of young people – friends since college – and follow them over the next five or ten years of their lives, a liking which may well have been triggered by McCarthy’s novel. Her all-woman group met at Vasser while Rakoff’s six-strong mixed band get together at Oberlin, her own alma mater.
It begins in 1998 with a wedding. Lil is marrying Tuck, who no one in the group is quite sure about. Lil and Tuck met at Rochester both studying for their doctorates but Tuck has dropped out and Lil has secured a teaching position intending to continue with her thesis in New York. On the strength of Tuck’s job with one of the new attention-grabbing magazines, they’ve set themselves up in a loft in rundown Williamsburg, the first of many gentrifiers to come. All six friends aspire to work in the arts or academia – Emily looks set for acting success on Broadway, Sadie works for a literary agent in the city, Beth is working on a doctorate in newly minted cultural studies, Dave is determined to become a musician and Tal is resisting parental pressure to go to law school convinced he’ll make it into the movies. Rakoff’s novel follows her group through marriages, children, affairs, career ups and downs, dot-com boom and bust, and calamitous world events, from the late ‘90s to 2004 when they are brought together, once again, by another rite of passage.
There’s a lovely quote from Daniel Deronda prefacing the novel which sums up youthful expectations beautifully: ‘What she was clear upon was, that she did not wish to lead the sort of life as ordinary young ladies did; but what she was not clear upon, how she should set about leading any other…’ This sets you up nicely for what follows in Rakoff’s book. It’s something of a doorstep – just tipping the 500-page plus balance – described rather disarmingly as ‘sprawling’ by the publishers and it has to be said that it could do with a trim. There’s a good deal of angsty introspection which made me a little impatient at times but Rakoff’s characters were sufficiently engaging to carry me along with them as they negotiate that tricky period between supposed adulthood and the actuality. The realisation that work may not be utterly fulfilling, that passion only takes a relationship so far, that money has to be made, that much of early parenthood is sheer hard grind – all of this is well handled with wit and humour. Rakoff’’s women characters are better rounded than her men – she seems to give up on Tal entirely who only pops into view now and again, mentioned in group catch-ups then appearing in the final pages. Not an unalloyed joy, then, but much better than my scanning of American reviews suggested. Perhaps the best measure is to ask whether I would want to catch up with Rakoff’s characters should she write a sequel and the answer would be yes but, please, keep it shorter next time.