In her gorgeously-written debut, Francesca Segal reworks The Age of Innocence, relocating Edith Wharton’s story of claustrophobia and scandal in gilded 1870s New York to today’s Jewish north-west London, where her hero, Adam, and his friends “circle in its gravity, returning from college to rent houses in Hendon, or buy first flats in West Hampstead, held in orbit by the hot sun of the community.” Adam has never questioned this state of affairs. In fact, “It had only been at university that he had understood just how unusual it was that he could list the whereabouts of all his nursery school classmates.”
Like Wharton’s Newland, Adam is recently engaged to a woman, to whom marriage means “certainty, and a promise of certainty always.” And then Rachel’s cousin Ellie arrives and threatens to shatter that perfection.
In the manner of Wharton’s renegade heroine Ellen, Segal’s Ellie has a tragic past (her mother killed by a terrorist bomb in Israel), a rackety childhood (her bewildered, grief-stricken father was “last heard of selling rose oil to tourists on Varanasi’s Assi Ghat”) and a frisson of scandal (she’s been kicked out of Columbia for appearing in a porn film). She shocks the community by turning up at synagogue for Kol Nidre “exposing skin from clavicle to navel, wearing a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers— trousers!—that clung and shimmered as if she’d been dipped in crude oil”. Ellie wants to fit in—she have to do to become a Nice Jewish Girl?”— but he is torn between helping her, and wanting to flirt with her, and to flirt also with the danger and excitement she represents.
Segal has a lot of fun finding playful parallels to Wharton’s novel and this is a very witty take on north-west London. There is a charity concert for Muslim-Jewish music schools (animated by a “sustaining image of two dark little children bonding over hummus and Handel”), a Chrismukkah party, a holiday in Eilat with an epic breakfast buffet (“In no other country had Adam seen chocolate mousse served for breakfast”), leftover challah for Saturday-morning French toast, a conversation with Adam’s mother that covers “recent hate crimes and the rabbi’s wife’s prolapsed uterus, and…another lengthy analysis of why his sister Olivia might still be unmarried.”
Some of Segal’s transpositions are more heart-rending; where Wharton’s Granny Mingott is simply eccentric, Segal’s counterpart, the fearsome Ziva, is an iconoclast because of what she’s gone through in the Holocaust. She is introduced as never fasting on Yom Kippur but instead spending the day baking “badly but doggedly” because, as she says, “I have fasted enough days in my lifetime”. She movingly explores a community clinging to tradition partly in response to a history of hatred, wrenchings and displacements. A much warmer writer than Wharton, she also makes a good case for Adam to ignore Ellie’s siren-song in favour of staying at the heart of a community in which “There was no life event—marriage, birth, parenthood or loss—through which one need ever walk alone. Twenty-five people were always poised to help.”
But ultimately, the question is: will the young hero risk his own happiness and security, and hurt the people around him, to liberate himself? I’ve always wished Wharton’s hero would, and reading The Innocents, I found myself longing not just for Segal to set Adam free, but also for her to liberate herself from Wharton; her novel follows The Age of Innocence so closely that I sometimes felt that her writing was as corseted and constrained as the community she portrays. She explores the central predicament—how you balance your responsibilities to yourself with those to your family and community—with compassion, honesty and bravery, but I missed Wharton’s simmering rage. Still, this is a wise, confident, intense debut, and I look forward very much to reading what Segal writes next.