Chatto & Windus, £12.99
The Innocents, By Francesca Segal
Innocence recast in London's NW11
Saturday 19 May 2012
In a humorous and touching re-working of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, debut novelist Francesca Segal substitutes for 1870s New York a tightly-knit Jewish community in present-day north-west London. It takes chutzpah to appropriate such a well-loved classic, but Segal parallels the two convention-bound worlds with enviable assurance.
Wharton's leading man, Newland Archer, is re-cast as Adam Newman, a lawyer on the cusp of marriage. His fiancée, Rachel Gilbert, is everything Adam has ever wanted in a wife – cute, curvy and sure of her place in the world. The announcement of their wedding plans also brings great relief to Rachel's parents, who've been waiting for the news for years.
But as in Wharton's novel this promising alliance is set to falter. Newly returned from New York comes Ellie Schneider, Rachel's beautiful first cousin. The Countess Olenska of the piece, Ellie embodies everything that Rachel is not. Rumoured to have starred in a porn video, she soon becomes the hot topic of speculation among Adam's contemporaries. But as Adam starts to wake up to the notion that there might be a world outside NW11, Segal draws us ever closer to its cosy bosom. Throughout this classily written comedy of manners, Segal continues to mirror the constrained social code of Wharton's Fifth Avenue Wasps. As Adam faces a series of increasingly painful dilemmas, we're encouraged to nurse the forlorn hope that this compliant son might yet go rogue and smash up his very nearly happy life.
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