A Fortunate Age: A Novel

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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.
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About the author

Joanna Smith Rakoff has written for The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She holds a B.A. from Oberlin College; an M.A. from University College, London; and an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She lives in New York with her husband and son.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Simon and Schuster
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Published on
Apr 7, 2009
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Pages
416
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ISBN
9781416596332
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Language
English
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Genres
Fiction / General
Fiction / Literary
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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This "landmark of the American literary century" (Boston Globe) is finally published as one volume, appearing with a brilliant new introduction. Sixty years after the publication of his great modernist masterpiece, Call It Sleep, Henry Roth, a retired waterfowl farmer already in his late eighties, shocked the literary world with the announcement that he had written a second novel. It was called, he reported, Mercy of a Rude Stream, the title inspired by Shakespeare, and it followed the travails of one Ira Stigman, whose family had just moved to New York’s Jewish Harlem in that "ominous summer of 1914."

"It is like hearing that…J. D. Salinger is preparing a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye," the New York Times Book Review pronounced, while Vanity Fair extolled Roth's new work as "the literary comeback of the century." Even more astonishing was that Roth had not just written a second novel but a total of four chronologically linked works, all part of Mercy of a Rude Stream. Dying in 1995 at the age of eighty-nine, Roth would not live to see the final two volumes of this tetralogy published, yet the reappearance of Mercy of a Rude Stream, a fulfillment of Roth's wish that these installments appear as one complete volume, allows for a twenty-first-century public to reappraise this late-in-life masterpiece, just as Call it Sleep was rediscovered by a new generation in 1964.

As the story unfolds, we follow the turbulent odyssey of Ira, along with his extended Jewish family, friends, and lovers, from the outbreak of World War I through his fateful decision to move into the Greenwich Village apartment of his muse and older lover, the seductive but ultimately tragic NYU professor Edith Welles. Set in both the fractured world of Jewish Harlem and the bohemian maelstrom of the Village, Mercy of a Rude Stream echoes Nabokov in its portrayal of sexual deviance, and offers a harrowing and relentless family drama amid a grand panorama of New York City in the 1910s and Roaring 20s.

Yet in spite of a plot that is fraught with depictions of menace, violence, and intense self-loathing, Mercy of a Rude Stream also contains a cathartic, even redemptive, overlay as "provocative as anything in the chapters of St. Augustine" (Los Angeles Times), in which an elder Ira, haunted by the sins of his youth, communes with his computer, Ecclesias, as he recalls how his family's traditional piety became corrupted by the inexorable forces of modernity. As Ira finally decides to get "the hell out of Harlem," his Proustian act of recollection frees him from the ravages of old age, and suddenly he is in his prime again, the entire telling of Mercy his final pronouncement.

Mercy of a Rude Stream is that rare work of fiction that creates, through its style and narration, a new form of art. Indeed, the two juxtaposed voices—one of the "little boys swimming in a sea of glory," the other of one of those same boys "in old age being rudely swept to sea"—creates a counterpoint, jarring yet oddly harmonious, that makes this prophetic American work such an lasting statement on the frailties of memory and the essence of human consciousness.

Mercy of a Rude Stream: The Complete Novels includes A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, From Bondage, and Requiem for Harlem.

Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century.

At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms.

Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer. Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves. 
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