A Hampstead tale of blended families

There aren't quite as many Jews in Francesca Segal's second novel as her first, but Jennifer Lipman still finds plenty that's familiar


There aren’t quite as many Jews in The Awkward Age  (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)  as in Francesca Segal’s Costa Prize-winning debut, The Innocents, which took Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and replanted it in Temple Fortune amid the JC’s “hatched, matched and dispatched” columns.

Still, The Awkward Age, which borrows the title, if not the exact plot, from a Henry James novel, won’t disappoint those looking for familiar faces in their fiction. Set almost entirely in the streets, schools and hospitals around Hampstead Heath, the hallmarks of a Jewish novel remain, from smatterings of Yiddish to overbearing mothers-in-law and a fixation on children getting the grades to become doctors.

Once again, Segal’s focus is love and family but, instead of youngsters headed for the chupah, Segal offers Julia and James, she a widow, he a divorcee. We meet them just as they have blended their families, forcing her teenage daughter Gwen and his son Nathan to coexist under the same roof. It’s fertile ground though Segal is hardly the first to tackle what happens when a stranger comes into a home where habits are long-established.

Julia, artsy, indulgent of her tempestuous daughter Gwen, and something of a doormat, has built a very different life to James, an exuberant American doctor with a can-do attitude and little time for Gwen’s histrionics. Thus, Julia’s relationship with her daughter is put to the test, allowing Segal to meditate on motherhood and the trials of adolescence.

Segal excels at character minutiae, switching protagonists from page to page but still doing each one justice, so that we understand equally the perspectives of Iris and Philip (Julia’s erstwhile in laws; a comedy duo who surely should have dined at Oslo Court at some stage in this novel) as we do those of the would be step-siblings, the insufferable Gwen and Nathan.

By the end of the book, I felt I would recognise these people walking down Haverstock Hill, albeit that I might not want to stop for a chat. And, as a native north Londoner, Segal’s pointed descriptions of the myopic nature of its upper-middle-class denizens (a newcomer from Stanmore is viewed as a country bumpkin by these insular urbanites) occasionally made me laugh out loud.

The weakness of the book — though some readers might not see it as such —– is that it’s all rather soapy, particularly in the dynamic between the teenagers. Without wishing to give too much away, I couldn’t buy all of the melodramatic plot twists; the first section of the book, before the plot fully unfolds, is to my mind the most convincing. And I suspect some readers might want to subtitle this book “first-world problems”; every one of the characters is privileged, healthy and successful enough not to have any real worries. As a comedy of manners, though, The Awkward Age is entertaining and intelligently written. Fans of The Innocents will enjoy it, even if it’s not quite as gossip-inducing as her debut.


Jennifer Lipman is a freelance journalist

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