What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Edith Wharton Meets 21st Century Jewish London??

Francesca Segal has chutzpah -- that's one thing of which I'm convinced after reading this ambitious re-imagining of the story at the heart of Edith Wharton's masterpiece, The Age of Innocence. Whether Wharton's novel was a favorite of Segal's or whether she simply looked around and found in the tightly-knit Jewish community in Northwest London (Golders Green, Belsize Park, Hampstead, etc.) some uncanny parallels to the highly-structured community in which everyone is even more familiar with your history, personality quirks and family story than you may even be aware, remains unclear. Regardless, in this novel Adam Newman, a London lawyer, becomes the Manhattanite, Archer Newland; his cherished and protected fiancée is no longer May, but Rachel; and Rachel's cousin is the outsider -- not quite an outcast, but no longer one of the group in the same way that Ellen Olsenka was in Wharton's opus -- who comes along to disrupt the ordered and predictable lives they all are living. 

Adam has grown up in this world, one in which the children he played with became the teenagers that he went on trips to Israel with and then the young adults who are marrying the women they have known much of their lives; women who, Adam realizes, end up integrated into his own life as childhood friends of Rachel's and because they also have become the girlfriends and wives of his own childhood friends. But Adam is aware that this existence is almost hermetic, and experiences waves of yearning for the unexpected; for something different that he can't quite name. It's clear that being like Jasper, his friend, is not what he wants for himself: "for Jasper, parties would continue to be what they had always been -- opportunities to spend time with exactly the same people he spent time with everywhere else." All that has changed is that instead of CDs, they listen to music on iPods; that the homes they visit belong to themselves and not their parents; that they are allowed to stay up past midnight (when wives and girlfriends permit them). What does Adam (aka Archer) want -- and will Ellie (aka Ellen) be a part of that or is she simply a beautiful and intoxicating distraction?

The problem with this, as with any literary homage, the reader is likely to be at least somewhat familiar with the original work to which the author is paying tribute. That means that either the novel should be very well written and feature characters and situations that can stand on their own merits, or else relatively straightforward and unambitious. (Re the latter, think of all the knockoff versions of Jane Austen novels, with Elizabeth Bennets and Mr. Darcys transplanted to various unlikely eras and locales, most of which fall squarely into the chick lit genre.) While Segal has delivered an interesting novel that certainly is worth reading in its own right, she is trying to deliver more than just a chick lit knock off -- and her reach slightly exceeds her grasp. It feels as if she is confined by Wharton's narrative, meaning that with rare exceptions, even some of her main characters never become fully alive, while the secondary ones are simply placeholders. One notable exception to this is Rachel's grandmother, Ziva, a Holocaust survivor; I am quite convinced that if I stroll down Hampstead High Street one Sunday, I'll cross her path, so vivid was Segal's portrayal of this indomitable woman, at once cherishing her errant granddaughter, Ellie, while appearing to understand, with compassion, the plight in which her presence has placed both Adam and Rachel. On the other hand, what it is that attracts Adam to Ellie -- other than lust and the allure of the different -- remains unclear. Yes, both lost parents at an early age, but while Segal offers that up as a reason, the roots of Adam's restlessness aren't explored enough to make them convincing, at least, not to me.

There are challenges involved in re-imagining Wharton's novel in a contemporary setting. However close-knit the social group with which Adam's life is bound up, breaking free is a far more realistic option, as it is for Ellie. He has real choices, of a kind that Wharton's characters, more than a century ago, did not. And there are plot twists here that are a part of the original novel that don't work nearly as well when transplanted to contemporary London.

Still, anyone who wants to read this as a novel in its own right is likely to find plenty to relish in Segal's portrayal of the clannish Jewish community of North London, one which will rapidly circle the wagons to prevent one of its own from rocking the boat (forgive the mixed metaphors.) Interference, yes -- but also support, as Segal has Adam remarking to himself early on in the novel. I'm not Jewish and I don't live in London, but I know people who are part of that community, and Segal's view into their community is not only vivid but strikes me as being pitch-perfect. Read the book for that reason alone, and if you become frustrated by an oddly flat character, or a plot element that doesn't seem to make sense, shrug it off as a part of the "homage" that doesn't quite work. This is a 3.9 star book for me -- good, but not great. Still, Segal can write, and I'll look forward to whatever she devises next. I'm quite certain that when she isn't trying to translate a century-old plot into a contemporary setting, but devising her own characters and plots, the result will be a stronger novel. Mildly recommended; pick it up from a library, wait for the paperback or a sale, or borrow it from a friend.

1 comment:

  1. I went to uni in London and on a group project I worked with a strict Orthodox Jewish girl. Everything she told me about her community was fascinating, but I would hate to live her life. For that reason, I think I would probably enjoy this book.