The futures in Anna Pitoniak’s debut novel belong to Julia and Evan, a bright young couple who have just graduated from Yale and are getting set to begin their “real” lives in New York. It’s an exciting, but daunting proposition given that the lives they’ve lived until this point have been pleasantly strife-free. Blonde, beautiful, popular and from a wealthy Boston family of lawyers, Julia’s “ease in the world” was one of the first things Evan noticed about her.
Evan’s more modest roots are in a small town in British Columbia, where his parents owned the local grocery store; his ticket into the Ivy Leagues was a hockey scholarship. Still, he hasn’t had much of a row to hoe either: “It turned out to be easy enough: making friends, fitting in. It didn’t seem to matter how different two people might be or how different their lives had been before college.” Pre-Yale, Julia’s biggest crisis was getting a C on a high-school English paper; Evan’s being “self-conscious” about his unstamped passport on their first trip abroad.
Like many of their friends, Evan and Julia have moved to New York in pursuit of “the dream,” described by Julia on the novel’s first pages as “… store windows on Madison Avenue, brownstones lit golden in the night, town cars gliding across the park … Manhattan was like a dazzling life-size diorama.” Chapters alternate between Julia’s and Evan’s perspectives. Pitoniak uses a kind of narratorial back-stitch that overlaps their perspectives on key incidents.
Julia might be used to seeing the world as her oyster, but it’s Evan who lands a job first, at a prestigious Manhattan hedge fund. Almost immediately, his hours start stretching into the night, leaving Julia to languish joblessly in the couple’s tiny Upper East Side apartment, where she finds herself overcome by profound inertia: “How you spent your time was suddenly up to you. There were other options. Infinite, terrifying options opening up like a crevasse and no one to tell you which way to go.” Within Manhattan’s life-size diorama, Julia’s life seems very much a diorama-sized diorama.
She eventually lands a job, thanks to family connections, at a charitable foundation, although the relief of this is mitigated by the “assistant” in her title branding her, in the eyes of her more driven peers, as a scarlet letter. Evan’s meteoric ascent, meanwhile, seems about to hit a snag. It’s 2008 – not, you’ll recall, the most auspicious year to be a debutante on Wall Street – but thanks to the savvy machinations of Evan’s slick, Maserati-driving boss, the company looks set to emerge from the storm unscathed, and Evan, hand-picked to develop the scheme, a hero.
Alas, literature and the world aren’t ready for a hedge-fund hero. Not yet. Something about the plan smells off. And just as Julia and Evan’s mutual alienation starts to give way to contempt, a figure from Julia’s past – handsome, upwardly mobile, manipulative – enters the scene with a sympathetic ear and a warm bed. He’s also a finance journalist. See where it’s all going?
Pitoniak is a sure-footed, fluid writer who knows her strengths and sticks to them. Her low-key, confessional style is well-suited to her focus: the anxiety that attends the transition from college to the work force, from structure to structureless. It also helps smooth over a fairly predictable plot that relies, at times, on some rather clumsy devices. A key denouement, for instance, is brought about when Evan, locked out of his hotel room in Vegas, gets invited to crash in his boss’s luxury suite and overhears full details of the dubious plan in which he’s implicated.
But other aspects of the novel sit more uneasily. Evan’s path from small-town Canuck hockey hero to Wall Street protégé isn’t just the farthest anyone travels, socially and class-wise, in the novel, it’s the widest trajectory anyone in the novel seems capable of conceiving. In a milieu where someone such as Evan serves as exotic outlier, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that Julia lacks the imagination or ability to contextualize her struggles.
The Futures ‘ bubble-ish feel is exaggerated by the fact that much of it takes place indoors: in apartments, office towers, glamorous lofts or in the confines of a cab. New York’s cultural vibrancy is rarely in evidence. A trip to Chinatown, where Julia eats “strange, spicy food in fluorescent-lit dives,” is as experimental as she gets.
This might well be an accurate depiction of the mindset of today’s white Ivy League millennials. What irks is Pitoniak’s failure to create, via ironic wink or Austen-esque nudge, any narrative distance between herself and her banally self-involved characters.
To the contrary, we get the sense that Pitoniak – an under-30 Yale grad who hails from Whistler, B.C., and works as an editor in Manhattan – is all in; that she wants us to see Evan and Julia as genuine victims of character and circumstance.
When things fall apart, Julia winds up where we’d expect her to be: licking her wounds back in the mildly irritated embrace of her family in Boston. It’s a setback, for sure, but all in all, we’ve got faith that she, and even Evan – to borrow a line from Mary Tyler Moore – are going to make it after all.
Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.Report Typo/Error
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