Each summer, thousands of Ivy League graduates emerge from their gilded residence halls, flush with the maudlin optimism of canned commencement addresses. They head for the only destination they can imagine: New York City, where they will be successful yet bohemian, utterly unlike their embittered parents.
So goes the millennial fairy tale.
But what actually happens when these pampered elites emerge from their bastions of privilege and move into the morass of bill-paying, workplace hangovers and emotional entanglements?
R.J. Hernández tackles this question elegantly in his debut novel, “An Innocent Fashion,” which follows recent Yale graduate Elián San Jamar. In his quest to whitewash his Hispanic origins, Ethan anglicizes his name — Ethan Saint James — and lands a competitive (albeit unpaid) internship at Régine, the creme-de-la-creme of New York fashion magazines. But Régine proves an exaggeratedly hostile and soul-sucking outfit: Early on in Ethan’s tenure, one of the older editors takes him aside to tell him that his colorful suits make him “stand out” too much.
As he clumsily navigates the superficial world of haute couture, spilling coffee and committing faux pas along the way, Ethan wistfully recalls his time at Yale (from which the author also graduated). Central in his memories is his best friend Madeline, a wealthy New York native with socialist leanings. (Her youthful idealism is conveniently showcased in an unsubtle classroom debate, where she passionately argues, “How about human worth and meaning? That’s what government should be trying to raise. If not to be alive, then people are living for the sake of what exactly? Some imaginary bottom line?”)
In college, Ethan was involved with both Madeline and her beautiful but flighty boyfriend, Dorian. Their romantic trio was blissful in its defiance of social and sexual norms, but when Dorian reappears in New York, his carefree capers begin to look a lot more like irresponsible cruelties.
“An Innocent Fashion” is often wry (Ethan reports that his roommates are consultants, but “whom they consulted, and on what matters,” he has no idea), but sometimes it is abruptly literary, adopting a tone unlike any that Ethan might actually take. The book’s portrait of postgraduate millennial dishevelment, however, rings true. If Hernández indulges a juvenile tendency to state his thematic claims too baldly, he also manages to capture the confusion of a generation wilting beneath the weight of adult responsibility. His characters are vivid enough to stand alone, without any of his obligatory nods to the horrors of materialism and corporate drudgery.
Victims of their affected apathy and subject, beneath their veneer of disinterested sophistication, to the same immemorial terrors and heartbreaks, Madeline, Dorian and Ethan are eminently believable. Their fumbling overtures are preludes to the dawning realization that we pay for our childish loves with lifelong suffering.
Becca Rothfeld is a freelance critic.
By R.J. Hernández
Harper Perennial. 375 pp. Paperback, $15.99