The Innocents, By Francesca Segal
A very American comedy of manners – reborn in NW11
Saturday 12 January 2013
In a humorous re-working of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, the Costa Prize-winning debut novelist, Francesca Segal substitutes 1870s New York with present-day north-west London. It takes chutzpah to appropriate such a well-loved classic, but Segal parallels the two convention-bound worlds with aplomb.
Segal's version sees Wharton's leading man, Newland Archer, re-cast as Adam Newman, a young Jewish lawyer on the cusp of marriage. His fiancée, Rachel Gilbert, is the perfect wife to be – cute, curvy and sure of her place in the world. Even more thrilled by the couple's announcement are Rachel's parents, Jaffa and Lawrence, who have been waiting ten years to call the caterers.
But, as in Wharton's novel, this promising alliance is set to falter. Back in town after a long sojourn in New York comes Rachel's first cousin, Ellie Schneider. 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, arriving at synagogue "exposing skin from clavicle to navel".
As Adam wakes up to the notion that there might be a world outside NW11, Segal draws us ever closer to its cosy bosom. It's a postcode that vibrates to the swish of cling-film as matriarchs wrap and re-wrap trays of Austrian strudels, and where young women combine the brains of a clinical oncologist with the heart of a "shtetl daughter".
Not that history doesn't cast its shadows. On Rachel's grandmother's coffee table a long boat of dark coconut wood sets "permanent sail" against future catastrophe.
Throughout this classily composed comedy of manners, Segal mirrors the constrained social code of Wharton's Fifth Avenue. As we watch Adam face a series of increasingly exquisite dilemmas we start to nurse the forlorn hope that this compliant son might yet go rogue and smash up his very nearly happy life. But who are we kidding? When this tightly-knit community closes ranks, there is no escape.
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