The Futures by Anna Pitoniak
Anna Pitoniak’s debut novel The Futures is a quintessentially millennial coming of age story. A pair of undergraduates receive their diplomas, and as their graduation caps tumble to the grass, the scaffolding of childhood withdraws its last layer. So begins adulthood. Their professional and romantic lives don’t follow the easy roadmap they expected, and the impending 2008 financial meltdown is the additional specter waiting in the wings. Novelist Pitoniak stumbles through some narrative structure landmines, and at times plays the sympathy violin a bit too loudly for her characters’ plight. But The Futures nonetheless emerges as a brisk, pleasing tale evidently written from genuine personal experience.
Yale students Julia and Evan meet early in their freshman year, date throughout college, and make the plunge to move in together in NYC following graduation. Their professional pursuits immediately take two very different tracks. Evan easily lands a well-compensated position at an elite financing firm. Julia meanwhile, with her bachelor’s degree in Art History, is set up by a family friend with an assistant position at a charity foundation, where she’s scolded for improperly scrubbing the coffee machine. As Julia struggles to find her place in the economy, Evan works 14-hour days and gradually gets entangled in a sketchy international deal involving backroom bribery. With their conflicting career trajectories, and with barely enough mutual free time to meet for dinner once per week, their relationship slowly and unspokenly unravels.
In terms of plot, it’s difficult to feel dramatic tension for the main character’s respective arcs because they don’t make flaw-based “mistakes,” per se. You can’t get frustrated with Evan’s growing involvement in the shady bribery deal—he’s doing exactly what his powerful superiors tell him, and as the new kid he has no standing to rock the boat. Meanwhile, with Evan either working or sleeping just about 24/7, it’s reasonably logical that Julia is tempted to seek romantic attention elsewhere. As these respective narratives approach their climax, there isn’t much by way of big reveals, and it’s somewhat disappointing.
The book succeeds, meanwhile, in its exploration of the various corners of the millennial quarterlife crisis. What it means to leave a small town for a booming, happening city. Realizing how young is too young to commit to a serious relationship of cohabitation. How to determine whether a professional accomplishment is earned or inherited. Scrambling to secure a solid answer to the post-graduation question “What are you doing next?” As a Yale graduate herself, Pitoniak writes from a very real place and has many meaningful things to ponder.
But the glaring flaw is this book’s lack of willingness to indict—but instead to romanticise—this millennial angst that is ultimately rooted in entitlement. Julia herself reflects that her mother raised her by checking all the right boxes: she fit in, was good at sports, teachers liked her, and she always got a date. Only in the first world is this an equation for existential anxiety. More audaciously, Julia recalls her campus years as a “constricting” life: class, study, party, boyfriend, over and over. These are first world problems to the Nth degree. Pitoniak tries to exonerate herself by inserting a scene in which Julia watches a news report of the Afghanistan war, acknowledging she’s lucky not to live in the daily danger of a war-torn nation. This is an isolated moment of clarity that the rest of the book floods out of focus.
Pitoniak writes with consistently pleasing prose (as a literary editor herself, one would hope so), but some occasional curious faux pas do pepper the text. There are a few cringe-worthy 7th grade similes, namely Julia explaining that her mind felt “like a helium balloon” or that worried thoughts continually popped up “like microwave popcorn.” With regard to structure, there are numerous flashbacks to college events that feel abrupt and messy. The cast also suffers from too many minor characters, some of whom you won’t hear about for dozens of pages and then are expected to remember when they reappear midsentence without a contextual reminder. The sections alternate between the two main characters’ first person perspectives, and it’s baffling that Pitoniak felt it necessary to plaster the word “Julia” or “Evan” in a large italicized font at the beginning of every respective chapter. As if we might not surmise whose narration it is in the opening sentence? Still, these narrative hiccups are misdemeanors at worst, and don’t terribly prevent the book from shining where it succeeds.
This tale is conspicuously set in the 2008 financial crisis, but interestingly, this isn’t the book’s biggest antagonist. Evan’s firm has enough financial cushioning to weather the storm, so his job is never in danger of a layoff, and Julia would have just as hard a time finding a job in Art History even with unemployment below 3%. Rather, the book’s biggest antagonist is the main character’s reluctance to accept the realities of growing up. “Adulting” is some abstract phase that they haven’t prepared for, and the biggest step in their quest for the American Dream is cause for anxiety. So while Pitoniak goes a bit too far to put her protagonists’ struggles on a pedestal, The Futures’ subject matter is undoubtedly relevant and truthfully presented.