The Innocents

By Jennifer Lipman, May 3, 2012

By Francesca Segal Chatto & Windus, £12.99

Writing about Jewish life - particularly within nosey, insular, North-West London - is an unenviable task. How to avoid stereotype or schmaltz, how to convey the unique challenges and joys of the community, and how not to offend everybody you've ever known by highlighting all that they fear about themselves?

Not knowing Francesca Segal's friends, I can't comment on that last but, as to the others, she deserves a medal.

That's not to say her novel, which transfers Edith Wharton's New York society satire, The Age of Innocence, to the equally scandal-conscious streets of today's Temple Fortune and follows conflicted, nice-Jewish-boy Adam as he embarks on marriage to his Israel Tour sweetheart, is flawless. The in-each-others'-pockets atmosphere is exaggerated and Jews outside of the London bubble, or who are not Reform or exceedingly wealthy, will experience a sense of exclusion.

But the joy is in the detail. From Adam's fiancée Rachel's family - domineering Israeli mother, doting father - to judging wardrobe choices on Kol Nidre rather than themselves, or the brilliant impression of an Eilat hotel breakfast, Segal gets it spot on.

At one point, Adam, tormented by thoughts of Rachel's unconventional American cousin Ellie, observes that, until university, he had not realised it was unusual "that he could list the whereabouts of all his nursery-school classmates". At another, we learn that, at Adele Summerstock's chupah, 90 per cent of the guests knew all about her teenage indiscretions.

Elsewhere, we are reminded that Adam plays Monday-night football with his Jewish friends and that the family enjoys playing "hatched, matched and dispatched" with the JC's Social and Personal pages.

Segal captures perfectly the pressures and expectations of life as a Jewish young professional: mothers who scan the announcements for younger brides; the desire to justify your life as exciting to friends who boast of being "outside the ghetto"; the contradictory ambitions of highly accomplished and intelligent women who still aim to be the perfect wife and mother.

The actual plot is secondary, and unremarkable. Ellie's arrival sets off a spiral of doubt in Adam's mind about whether he has chosen the right life for himself, or indeed whether he even had a choice. Yet, while Adam is well-drawn and convincing, Ellie comes across as one-dimensional and Rachel is a rather ungenerous caricature. She is everything one could despise about Jewish women from North-West London -- a Jewish Princess with few of the redeeming qualities that made her worthy of Adam's attention.

For all that, The Innocents is deservedly destined to be the book that everyone will read on their next flight to Israel.

Almost like a gossip magazine focused entirely on your friends, it races along, in frothy, readable fashion and is, at root, largely sympathetic to our occasionally absurd community. Mirrors have been more flattering but rarely as truthful and enjoyable.

Jennifer Lipman is the JC's deputy Comment editor

Last updated: 6:32pm, May 3 2012