What a stunning debut from Francesca Segal. A 32-year-old first-time novelist has no business writing such a sophisticated, pitch-perfect homage to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Her strategy is that of Zadie Smith in On Beauty (for which the model is E. M. Forster’s Howards End): giving a classic novel a new home in contemporary north London, but staying true to the emotional content – the interplay of love and desire, jealousy and frustration. And yet knowledge of the parent text is entirely unnecessary; both novels are thoroughly accomplished stand-alone tales.
Segal’s love triangle is set in a world readers may know little about: London’s tight-knit Jewish community. Adam Newman has been happily paired with Rachel Gilbert for nearly twelve years, since they were Jewish secondary school sweethearts. Now newly engaged, Adam and Rachel seem set to follow in her parents’ footsteps into the role of pillars of the community. But suddenly, inevitably, their perfect world is threatened by the return of Rachel’s bad-girl American cousin, Ellie Schneider. Ellie seems to be everything the safe, predictable Rachel is not, and Adam quickly becomes utterly enchanted with her.
The rest of the novel plays out as an engrossing (if somewhat predictable) will-they, won’t-they game of manners. Even a limited knowledge of Edith Wharton’s work will suggest that whether the would-be lovers get together or not, there is no possibility of their dalliance ending happily. And yet Segal is remarkably kind and gentle to all her characters; we don’t take sides because she lets us see the validity of all sides.
Each character is expertly drawn, from Adam’s sex-obsessed best mate to a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and matriarch. It is clear that Segal knows her Jewish community intimately, such that she can portray it both lovingly and critically. She is particularly good at depicting holiday celebrations, with, for instance, impressive descriptions of spreads of food. The book is strong at the level of language too, with a deliberately elevated diction that echoes Wharton and even Jane Austen. Rather than seeming strained or overreaching, this strategy works remarkably well. Segal’s story of longing and dissatisfaction in London’s Jewish suburbia pairs brilliantly with Wharton’s elegant examination of upper-class society life.