The Fortunate Ones is the sophomore book from Nashville-based writer Ed Tarkington. If you remember, it was also one of my most anticipated reads of 2021. I wish I could say I loved it – and there were parts that I actually really liked – but overall this book fell pretty flat for me.
When I first started reading this book, I’ll admit I started with a bias. I wanted to love it. This is a novel by a Nashville guy writing about Nashville. As someone who has lived in Nashville for close to ten years, a book set in my city is something I want to love. I want a book that is about my town to be great. I want my local authors to write the next great American novel and I want to support them along the way.
Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the probably unfair hype I created in my mind for it. Why is that?
This book was written to illustrate a point that Tarkington, apparently, feels strongly about: the wealth gap in America and how that leads to different social structures and the inherent problems within that system. This theme and this argument, if that’s the right word for it, dominates this novel to the detriment of the story telling. This book was written to make people think and maybe it achieved that, but it was too on the nose for me.
Recently, I read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and one of the strengths of that book was that it made me think. But it did it subtly. I was so invested in the story and the characters that I empathized with the decisions they had to make and wondered what I would do in their place. Ng made me think about ethics and morality and social structure while not realizing I was doing that.
On the other hand, Tarkington doesn’t attempt to be subtle. It is prominent from page one and his intentions are on full blast. Some people may really enjoy that aspect of this book, after all, income inequality is something that for sure needs to be addressed, but I found it distracting. And, don’t get me wrong, I don’t even disagree with Tarkington or the points he’s trying to raise. But I wanted to enjoy a story, not read a lecture on income inequality.
That goes back to my preference when it comes to fiction. I read fiction because I want to be entertained and love a story, not to think about issues. Fiction is an escape from the real world into a story. I read as much nonfiction as I do fiction and I believe nonfiction is a far better way to address these issues that need addressing. And people might disagree with that approach, and that is fine, I know the counter arguments and they are good. The Fortunate Ones is not a type of book I generally enjoy.
Also, Tarkington attempts to address basically every single controversial issue to the point where it’s like: “Okay, maybe we didn’t need that.” Racism, religion, sexuality, abortion, income inequality, democrat vs. republican politics, sexism, infidelity, gentrification. All of that is featured in this book and more. Again, all of those things need to be talked about but trying to force them all into a relatively short novel? I don’t think that worked.
Most of the characters were actually pretty great, if a little cliched. They served the purpose Tarkington wanted them to serve, at least. The first part of the novel focused on our protagonist, a poor kid, being introduced to a fancy, rich person private school and the world that entailed. Most of the friends he met were cliched. They acted exactly as you would expect characters like them to act.
Sure, some of them had deeper motivations, strengths and struggles, but it felt like those were only hinted at while the completely expected and obvious issues were at the forefront. Which makes sense. Tarkington wanted to explore the social dynamics inherent in income inequality, so it makes sense that his characters imbibed those traits so he could showcase them.
However, I didn’t particularly like the protagonist. He seemed like a vehicle for the story to happen instead of actually having a character of his own. For most of the story, he floats through the pages, not really making a decision, not really doing anything, just being a window so that we can see the other characters. And then he makes a decision and it is bonkers and so over the top that it is completely unbelievable. Then, after that plays out in a really weird section of the book that I didn’t really understand or appreciate, he is back to not making decisions and allowing the plot to happen to him.
As The Fortunate Ones is a first-person perspective book, I wished to feel more attachment to the protagonist. I wished to see more of his character and passions. We saw quite a bit from the supporting cast, especially the love interest, I thought she was a great character, it is a shame that we didn’t get that from the main guy.
The book was written to examine certain issues and I think it did that relatively well. However, that means it wasn’t a book I’d normally like to read. I don’t read fiction to be preached at and that is what this book did. There’s a definite difference between a book subtely, almost surgically, making you examine your own thoughts around an issue and a book beating you over the head with the issue. In my opinion, Tarkington’s novel did the latter.
Unfortunately, the story gave way to theme and I am such a fan of story that I couldn’t overlook that. I wanted so bad to like this book, and I really did love elements of it, but at the end of the day I couldn’t get past the weak storyline that existed only to serve a theme.
I have to give this one 2 stars out of 5.