Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence gets a reboot in this novel set in a present-day London Jewish enclave.
The plot structures of Wharton’s 1920 classic and this novel are extremely similar: Adam, an ambitious young man, is set to marry Rachel, a stunning woman from a well-to-do family (Adam works in Rachel’s father’s law firm). Adam and Rachel have been a couple since they were teens, but their just-so existence is upended with the arrival of Rachel’s cousin Ellie from New York. Ellie has scandalized many in her family with her acting and modeling career, which included nude scenes in an art film, while rumors of her consorting with married men abound. But Adam is drawn to her in spite of all this, and in part because of it—her free-spirited, straight-talking attitude hits him like a thunderbolt, making him aware of just how sheltered his life has been. Segal isn’t the ornate stylist Wharton is, but she writes elegantly and thoughtfully about Adam’s growing sense of entrapment, and she excels at showing how a family’s admirable supportiveness can suddenly feel like smothering. (She can write with humor, too; in one scene Adam’s family reads names from the Jewish newspaper’s births-deaths-weddings announcements and guesses if they were “hatched,” “dispatched” or “matched.") Segal’s effort to work a Madoff-ian financial scandal into the closing chapters feels like an ungainly attempt to add some drama, and Ellie and Adam’s flirtatious bantering isn’t always convincing. But overall this is a well-tuned portrait of a couple whose connection proves to be much more tenuous than expected, and of religious rituals that prove more meaningful than they seem. Segal thoughtfully ties in family Holocaust lore and high-holiday gatherings to show that those long-standing bonds are tough to break.
Even if the plot and themes are second-hand, this is an emotionally and intellectually astute debut.