Author draws on post-college memories in first novel

Do not confuse Joanna Smith Rakoff with the characters in her debut novel, “A Fortunate Age.”

While the characters all attended Oberlin College in the mid-1990s like she did, and the group of friends all navigate creative post-collegiate life in New York like she did, the dramatic events that unfold in the story are pure fiction.

“It’s strange, because nothing in the book actually happened to me, no actual incidents,” says Rakoff, 38. “But with that said, the characters are all sort of drawn from people that I’ve met and known over the years.”

Joanna Smith Rakoff

The author explained the differences between her life and her book over coffee during a San Francisco visit on Oct. 4. Though her visit this time was brief, she’d spent the summer here, visiting with her parents who live in San Jose and swimming at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. She was back in the Bay Area last week to speak on a panel for new authors as part of Litquake.

Her book follows six Jewish friends — Sadie, Lil, Emily, Beth, Dave and Tal — all in search of meaningful work and relationships in New York after the dot-com bust but before the current economic crises.

They deal with a barrage of life-defining moments — weddings, babies, family emergencies, cheating husbands and death, along with era-specific events such as the rise of Internet culture and tech magazines, and the devastating effects of 9/11 (the book begins in 1999 and covers a decade).

The characters’ lives are fractured by these incidents but they remain held together, quite loosely, by the “very groupness of their little group,” writes Rakoff. “It was as important as the individual friendships that comprised it.”

The framework of the novel is based on Mary McCarthy’s 1963 book “The Group,” which is set in the 1930s. But Rakoff’s has two key elemental changes — it takes place 60 years later, and the core group is made up of Jews, not elite WASPs as they were in McCarthy’s book.

“I was completely shocked that this novel set in 1930s New York had no Jewish characters,” Rakoff says. “My entire family was in New York in the 1930s and they were the same kind of people that were in the group [in the book]” — her grandmother was a prominent labor organizer and her grandfather was a theater critic.

“So I started thinking that in my novel most of the characters are going to be Jewish, because that’s what realistic to me. In all the circles I run in in New York, there are some people who are not Jewish, but the majority are.”

Her book was initially released in hardback in 2009 and paperback earlier this year, but it was recently awarded the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Goldberg Prize for Emerging Jewish Fiction, which seems to have given it renewed life, she says.

Rakoff has since been jetting back and forth across the country to attend panels, give lectures and do book readings. But she’s never away from home for too long — she’s married to a fellow writer, and they have a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter at home in New York.

It’s easy to see why readers and reviewers might confuse Rakoff with her characters. Described in crisp detail, they are all Jewish and most grew up in New York, with moderately wealthy families and  strong backgrounds in academia. While her parents now live in California, Rakoff lives in NYC’s Lower East Side and was raised in the largely Jewish town of Pomona, N.Y., near the Hudson River Valley.

Her parents were staunch Zionists, so she attended “socialist Zionist” and “commie” summer camps where the focus was on Hebrew, literature and role-playing scenarios such as, “What would happen if the Nazis took over the United States?”

After spending high school summers in Israel, she graduated from Oberlin with an English degree in 1994. She got her master’s degree in London, then thought she might move to Berkeley, but instead made her way back to her home state.

There, inspired by the city and her day job as editor in chief of online Jewish publication Nextbook (now Tablet magazine), she began piecing together “A Fortunate Age.”

Because she was editing Jewish magazines at the time, Rakoff’s culture was often at the forefront of her thoughts.

She lamented that so much Jewish fiction is historical, about the Holocaust or life in the shtetl. And she began to wonder — where was all the current Jewish-American fiction?

Rakoff sought to answer it with “A Fortunate Age,” her own take on contemporary Jewish life.

“The book is very much about what it means to be a young, secular Jew and kind of trying to figure out what that means,” Rakoff says. “What is your identity, how do you think of religion? What does it mean to be Jewish?”

“A Fortunate Age”
by Joanna Smith Rakoff (399 pages, Scribner, $26)