A Fortunate Age

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Overview

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 ...

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A Fortunate Age: A Novel

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Overview

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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  • A Fortunate Age
    A Fortunate Age  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Rakoff's first novel is unabashedly influenced by Mary McCarthy's The Group, and though it doesn't reach those heights, it's an entertaining, updated look at artistic-minded young people progressing toward adulthood in New York. Where McCarthy focused on a group of new Vassar graduates, Rakoff's characters are alumni of Oberlin, a liberal bastion that the friends generally look upon favorably but were also quite ready to leave after four years. The novel opens with the surprise announcement of a wedding engagement between Tuck and Lil. The engagement party allows the reader to become acquainted with all of the friends and serves as somewhat of an official kick-off to actual adulthood for them. Rakoff then formulaically uses the narrative to take turns with each friend in order to place equal importance on all of them, despite their various levels of likability. As they experience marriage, children, dot-com busts, infidelities, alcohol abuse, personal tragedies, professional successes, and other common experiences of twentysomethings in the mid-1990s, Rakoff objectively and deftly chronicles all of it despite her personal connections. Recommended for most fiction collections.
—Kevin Greczek

From the Publisher
“The long-awaited book that perfectly captures the '90s, that time of social and financial excess that set the stage for the current economic collapse.”
— NPR.org

“An absorbing, if at times sprawling, story of a group of idealistic friends coming of age in the big city.”
The Boston Globe

“Superb, acutely insightful… a modern-day version of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence"
— TheRumpus.net

“An expansive and elegantly executed time capsule of the dot.com generation finding its feet during a critical moment in history.”
New York Daily News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416590774
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/7/2009
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Joanna Smith Rakoff

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.

Biography

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. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Western Humanities Review, and Arts & Letters, and her personal essays have appeared in such anthologies as How to Spell Chanukah and If You Really Want to Hear About It: Writers on J.D. Salinger. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. 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.

Biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Joanna Smith Rakoff:
"My first real job was at a grand, storied literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, where I was the assistant to the president, a grand, storied lady named Phyllis Westberg, who was wonderful to me—if a bit scary, at times—and gave me more responsibilities than, perhaps, she should have, which really allowed me to learn about the publishing industry and literary culture, in general. I'd just dropped out of a Ph.D. program and still thought, rather pompously, of myself as a scholar, which made Ober a great place to work, as they were primarily known, at that time, for the estates they represented: Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Anna Kavan, and tons of others. But perhaps the most interesting and strange part of my job was answering J. D. Salinger's fan mail. Salinger, a longtime client of the agency, received tons of mail, as you can imagine, much of it very personal and strange, and much of it from teenagers who had formed a sort of hysterical identification with Holden Caulfield. I was supposed to send a form letter to each and every Salinger fan, but over my time at Ober I began personalizing letters and—it's bizarre to think about it now!—entered into a correspondence with a few of them. I actually still have some of my favorite letters from that time (which are supposed to be filed away somewhere in the Ober archives…)."

"I have an almost-four-year-old son, Coleman, and when not writing I spend most of my time with him, reading books or drawing or running around the park behind our apartment building. I finished the first draft of A Fortunate Age just before giving birth to him and began the process of revising it when he was about a month old. So, every weekend, I'd literally hand the baby over to my husband, Evan, then run to the local coffee shop and write for as long as I could, until I got the call saying it was time to come home and feed the baby. It was a grueling, but exhilarating time. And there were days, especially when Coleman was older, when it was very hard for me to leave him (and Evan, too); so hard that I'd sometimes burst into tears, certain that I was causing Cole some irrevocable damage. On such days, Evan, whose mother always dreamed of being a writer (but never completed anything), would say to me, 'You'll be doing him more damage if you don't finish this novel.' And he was, most definitely, correct."

"Rather like my character, Sadie Peregrine, I live in an inherited apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In my case, the apartment belonged to my grandmother. (Sadie's inherited hers from a great aunt; and, in fact, I was offered an aunt's apartment, a few years back, but one apartment seemed enough...) I inherited the place when I was quite young, 26, and seriously impoverished. All of my friends were living in tiny, horrible apartments in the East Village or various parts of Brooklyn or Queens—as was I!—and it was very strange to all of a sudden be in Manhattan, in this kind of large, grown-up apartment, surrounded by all of my grandmother's things (I quickly donated a bunch of stuff, as the alternative was to go insane; and, if you can believe it, my father still gives me a hard time about getting rid of some ancient, chipped child's bedroom set—which, no, hadn't even belonged to him! I think it was—and is—just hard for my father to view the apartment as mine, rather than his mother's, and to allow me to actually get rid of a thing or two. My mother, meanwhile, was encouraging me to knock down all the walls and make the place "clean and modern," which my husband and I—ten years after moving in—having finally gotten around to doing (in part, out of necessity; the place was falling down around us)."

"I hope this doesn't sound insane, but I don't have very many hobbies. I'm a bit boring. My life, since childhood, has been very much centered around reading and writing. There is, literally, nothing I'd rather do than lie on the couch, reading a novel. And as a child—maybe even now—the worlds I enter when I read are as real to me as the actual world around me.

That said, I love going to the movies. My husband and I tend to go once a week; and I often take my son to matinees, much as my father took me, from an early age, every Thursday afternoon. I often fantasize about making—that is writing and directing—a film, but am not sure I have the courage to navigate that particular industry. But we will see.

Otherwise, I do a lot of yoga—being constitutionally unable to participate in team sports and having a deep aversion to gyms—go running in East River Park, ice skate at Wollman Rink, and love to cook and, even more, to bake. And before having Coleman we used to have huge dinner parties. But in recent years, between Coleman and writing, I haven't had the strength to entertain as much. Instead I've been teaching Coleman to cook, which is more fun than I ever could have imagined.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 8, 1972
    2. Place of Birth:
      Suffern, NY, USA
    1. Education:
      B.A., English, Oberlin College. 1994; M.A., English, University College, London. 1995; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1999
    2. Website:

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 69 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(3)

4 Star

(6)

3 Star

(23)

2 Star

(26)

1 Star

(11)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 69 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2009

    A bunch of im-mature people

    I didn't really like this book or any of the characters in it. I just couldn't relate to the story or any of the characters and what happened to them. The writing was good though as far as style.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    2 stars is generous

    I wanted to like this book, it was a quick read and it takes place in NYC, a city full of character. However, the same can not be said for Ms Rakoff's book. The characters are whiny, the plot is thin. I was unsure if the author was trying to write a serious novel or chick-lit. One character that I liked has stuggled through adversity and just when it's getting interesting, she is "rescued" in the form of a marriage proposal from a doctor she barely knows. And then lives happily ever after. This seemed to be a theme in the novel.<BR/>The story focuses on one character at a time but again, once it gets interesting, fast forward and their lives are fine. A very convoluted plot that can't find direction.<BR/>I would not recommend this book to anyone. I do think the author has some potential but she has not reached it yet. I hope her next work is more focused and more interesting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 31, 2009

    An Ambitious First Novel

    In ¿A Fortunate Age,¿ Joanna Smith Rakoff has tackled an ambitious project. There are many positives about this first novel. The writing is good. Memorable passages draw the reader. She tells us this novel is a tribute to Mary McCarthy's, ¿The Group.¿ In fact, it is an updated group, even men are added. <BR/><BR/>Personally, I found the book hard to read. Emily, the character that drew me, didn't appear alone until nearly the end of the book. The other characters seemed self-centered and, frankly, not very interesting. Perhaps this is because we are drawn to characters who win out after a long struggle. <BR/><BR/>The main drawback for me was that the book is very ethnic. I'm sure if I'd attended Oberlin, or tried to make it in New York city, I'd be more responsive to the characters. Since neither of these apply, and I have avoided going to New York City even to visit my children, the book didn't entice me. <BR/><BR/>I hope to see more of Joanna's work in the future. She's obviously a talented writer. If she had a more tightly woven plot, I think she would be exceptional.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Disappointed

    "A Fortunate Age" by Joanna Smith Rakoff is the story of six 20 somethings, starting out in New York. It is set in the late 90s and turn of the century, and follows five Oberlin graduates as they shed their youth and start their lives.<BR/>I found that the characters were difficult to follow and I didn't feel that the characters were fully developed. The author focuses each chapter on one character but doesn't go into enough depth in any of them to make me care about them. Smith Rakoff uses flashbacks to try to fill in some of the gaps, but instead of helping, I feel it makes it difficult to keep everyone's story straight. None of the characters in this first novel by Smith Rakoff, is memorable. <BR/>The author used language that tries to emulate that of Edith Wharton or Charles Dickens and is used to try to fill the depth of this book. Not a successful endeavor. If there was a plot, I couldn't find it. I finished the book only because I hoped that the next chapter would be better. Instead, I was disappointed and no less confused.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2009

    Mediocre

    This episodic novel traces the lives of a group of friends during the ten years or so after they graduate from Oberlin. The volume of the characters was sometimes disorienting; the four women friends are followed in detail, with somewhat less information about their male friends Dave and Tal. To me, though, the bigger problem is the nearly relentless focus on life¿s problems¿but without developing any kind of larger plot. Their jobs are problematic, their friends don¿t understand. The only good things that happen to the characters involve getting married and having babies (now THERE¿S a startling plot line for women in their late twenties and early thirties), but these simply bring their own new sets of problems. I kept reading because the characters are, honestly, compelling (though they seem a bit two-dimensional, made of nothing but their careers and their love lives¿none of them seemed to have any other interests or hobbies), but after I was finished, I wasn¿t quite sure what I¿d gotten from the book. It does not end on any kind of hopeful note. In short, it is a novel that relates to the world in a fundamentally different way than I do.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 23, 2008

    "St. Elmo's Fire" lives

    Overall I was disappointed. Reading this book became an exercise and actually put me in a lousy mood. The characters were so flawed I found them unlikable and at times, barely tolerable. The writing style seemed pretentious and I felt the author was demonstrating the use of an English degree. Out of curiosity I started counting the hyphens and dashes interrupting each character's thoughts and the narrative. I started on page 306 and quit after page 323. In those 18 pages the author used that device 30 times. I noticed because it distracted me from reading. And the ending really disappointed me. There wasn't a single resolution of anything. It just stopped. <BR/><BR/>I find a book irritating when possible story lines are introduced but not expanded. Don't start an idea that won't go anywhere. One of the "Advance Praise" comments said this novel was "A wonderful, funny, and spot-on portrait..." I couldn't find the humor anywhere; just the sadness of college graduates who find the world isn't half as impressed with them as they thought it should be. <BR/><BR/>Could I have written this book? No way! Kudos to Ms. Smith Rakoff for completing her first book (unlike Tuck). I might not be the correct audience for her writing. But it did smack too much of "St. Elmo's Fire" and I didn't like that movie either.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2009

    Had potential but overall disappointment

    Overall I was very disappointed with A Fortunate Age. I believe that the story itself wasn't bad but the writing was very choppy. The story skipped ahead so much I almost felt as if I was reading a collection of short stories instead of a complete novel. The author focused on tiny minute details of trivial aspects of characters lives and then completely skipped over major life events of main characters. Some momenst are built up in one chapter and then merely glanced over in subsequent chapters to the point where you aren't quite sure if an event happened at all. The characters were annoying at best. Not something I would recommend to my friends.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Unfortunate Read

    The book follows a group of friends from Oberlin through the morass of their daily lives, by looking at the group of friends one at a time, one chapter at a time. <BR/><BR/>The book is well-written, hence my 3-star rating, and I'm sure it has an audience but I'm not it. I pretty much hated every single character and was annoyed with how they related to one another within the group. I had to force myself to finish it. I am not a fan of the whiny, misunderstood, lazy Gen X-er spirit portrayed here. As a Gen-Xer myself, I feel like I know these people and their ilk and they annoy me in real life. Why would I want to read about them too? It did not help the book's cause for me. <BR/><BR/>I also had a problem with this author's portrayal of New York as one of the characters in the book. I think it is fine to do that if you make the city relevant for everyone. I live in Chicago, so even though it took me a while to catch on to what she was saying about a particular area, eventually I did identify with the neighborhoods the author describes as similar to some from here (even if I don't know the specific New York area she might be talking about). But, it annoyed me to think that people outside of cities would be at a loss to "get" a whole character in the book, even if that character is a city. <BR/><BR/>I won't be recommending this to anyone.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Well, I tried to like it...

    A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff has so much potential to be an amazing read but misses the mark. The story centers around a group of Oberlin College graduates who are trying to acclimate to life after college in the face of relationship and professional trials . The novel begins with Lil¿s wedding and steam rolls from there. It is a story about pseudo-adults becoming full grown adults and the results of the transformation.<BR/><BR/>A Fortunate Age had such potential to be a really great read but there were some faults that could not be overlooked. The story had a complete lack of compelling characters. The women seemed to be whiney and self-absorbed. There is nothing remotely sympathetic about any of the characters. The characters lacked depth. It was often difficult to follow their stories or become attached to any one of the characters because of the episodic format of the book. You never really got to know a character. They were there one minute and gone the next with no follow-up. Anytime there was a character with an interesting back-story pops up (like Will) there is no follow-up. You never know how they got over their issues and how their story progresses. A character is meeting a man in one chapter and married to them in the next. It is impossible to become attached to a character or truly interested in a character¿s story with a format like this. It resembles a collection of short stories rather than a novel. It is like the author wanted to squeeze as much story as she possibly could into this novel.<BR/><BR/>I found A Fortunate Age to be difficult to get engaged in and easy to forget. If Rakoff had expanded on some of the more interesting storylines the story would have been greatly improved. The one glaring instance is Beth¿s relationship with Will. I would have loved to see how that developed especially after the rather auspicious start. This is definitely not my cup of tea but perhaps another reader would have a more favorable opinion.<BR/><BR/>If you want to read a good novel about a group of female friends try The Professor's Wives' Club by Joanne Rendell.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Friends and relations

    First there was McCarthy's novel, The Group (1991). Next came thirtysomething on TV, and then ten years of Friends. A Fortunate Age closely resembles those earlier productions, with its cast of former college pals trying to make a place for themselves in the world, in NYC. It also begins with a wedding, which shocks them all, including the bride, after which the reader follows along as the members of the clique explore relationships, sex, and professions (well, jobs.)<BR/><BR/>Rakoff is a competent and fluent writer, but her plot leaves something to be desired. Rambling and disconnected, it is built upon chapters that focus on one of the group members at a time, and their interactions with friends both old and new. Mostly dialogue, with little genuine action, A Fortunate Age can leave the reader befuddled, trying to recall what came before. None of the characters is particularly engaging, all being rather shallow and whiny, the sense of entitlement that got each through college and grad school letting them down now that push has come to shove. More a series of short stories that share a few characters in common than a fully realized novel, this book has its moments, but in between the high points are nested long passages of narcisisstic ramblings, in which the friends wonder why they each feel so disconnected from it all. No one truly grows or changes, and the reader is left wondering, in the words of Burt Bacharach, "what's it all about?"

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2009

    This book was not for me, but would be good for a different audience

    I would rate this book 3. I found the characters annoying and could not relate to their lives. Their was no real plot except their lives and growth, so that ruled out any real interest to me at fifty and living in the rural south. My daughter, however, who is attending a private New England school and plans to move to New York did enjoy it when I passed it to her. I think this book would be good for a limited audience.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2009

    Not a Bad First Effort, But Not Quite My Favorite

    Maybe it's because I've read quite a number of contemporary novels that seem to run in the vein of this one that I found the theme to be one that's been overdone. Namely, the author chronicles a group of young people as they deal with relationships, careers, and the general angst that is life as we enter adulthood. This is not the kind of book to read if you're looking for an escapist experience. Too much downer realism with all its attendant confusion, depression, betrayals, etc. While a bit verbose in my opinion, the style of writing was not bad at all. I'd like to see what the author could do if she narrowed her focus, concentrating on only a few characters/issues and dealing with something more confined than a sprawling novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2009

    Unfortunate Review

    I have been procrastinating on writing a review of the book.<BR/><BR/>Rakoff tries too hard, in my opinion to give the characters depth, and she becomes extremely wordy (which is not the same as being descriptive). For me, the book wasn¿t stimulating, didn¿t grab me to want to continue on. Each chapter is primarily delegated to one of the characters in the book.<BR/><BR/>Judaism is a subtle and underlying issue, not overtly depicted, yet the reader knows it is a force in the lives of the characters. <BR/><BR/>Within that format, I found the book to be a labor to read. The chapters are choppy, almost leaving the reader hanging at the end of each one, with no clarity. They end almost abruptly, without any defining conclusion. <BR/><BR/>I am an avid reader of non-fiction and fiction. It is possible that the fact that I am older left me feeling unsympathetic and not gratified. I couldn¿t wait to finish it, which for me is unusual.<BR/><BR/>In my opinion Rakoff needs to work harder in blending her characters within chapters of cohesion. She definitely made a decent first effort. Unfortunately, A Fortunate Age, by Joanna Smith Rakoff, did not appeal to me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Coming of Age in the 90s

    A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff is the story of six highly educated 20 somethings, starting out in New York. It is set in the late 90s and early part of 21st century and follows five Oberlin graduates as they start their lives, families, and careers.<BR/><BR/>All of the characters come from comfortable families and seem not to care about monetary success. The book starts with Lil's wedding and we are introduced to her family, and her best friends from college; Beth, Sadie, Emily, Tal, and Dave.<BR/><BR/>The book is divided into sections and each section is about one of the main characters. While the story starts out slowly, there were many times when I couldn't put the book down. While each of the characters were interesting in their own right, I definitely liked two more than the rest. I would have liked to get to know each of the characters better to know where they were coming from and where they were going to end up.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Hard to follow

    The characters in this story were hard to follow. The author focuses each chapter on one character but there are large amounts of time missing between each chapter. Flashbacks provide some of the missing details, but it makes it difficult to keep everybody's story straight.<BR/><BR/>I did finish the book but it became a chore at times.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2009

    Not what I was expecting

    It was difficult for me to become fully immersed in the book. Each character was allotted a few chapters to tell their side of the story, and once I had a better sense of who they are, the story would shift to another person¿s point of view. While I like this general idea of the structure of telling the story, the transition from one chapter to the next was hardly smooth and I was left with a lot of unanswered questions.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2009

    Pretentious and lacks plot

    I think the book might have good bones, but it is hard to tell under all of the showy, meaningless language that fills this book. There is no thread of a story, just ill-joined vignettes that may or may not have to do with the ones that come before and after. I finished the book because I had hopes that there might be some redeeming quality to it, but was disappointed and confused.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not worth my time

    Characters that I didn't care about and that were not fully developed made this novel a waste of my time. She writes in a confusing way and puts in tons of boring and useless details. Would not recommend this book when there are so many great reads out there.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Disappointing

    The characters in this book are presented in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to get involved with them and care about them. The author uses to many time shifts and life changes to keep the story flowing smoothly. Read the book if you have time to go back and re-read many parts of it. If your looking for a satisfying story, skip it,

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2009

    could not finish

    I could not finish this book, which is very rare for me. The characters were forgettable and I really didn't get the story. I usually read anything and I just could not take an interest in this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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