Authors: Francesca Segal
“Francesca Segal’s lustrous debut may have begun as a seed shaken from Edith Wharton’s masterpiece
The Age of Innocence
, but only a few pages will show how completely Segal has made
her own. The setting—a vibrant if enclosed London Jewish community—is beautifully counterbalanced by Segal’s wry and compassionate voice.”
—Lauren Groff, bestselling author of
The Monsters of Templeton
is written with wisdom and deliciously subtle wit, in the tradition of Jane Austen and Nancy Mitford.... This is a wonderfully readable novel: elegant, accomplished, and romantic.”
—André Aciman, author of the award-winning
Out of Egypt
Call Me by Your Name
“A moving, funny, richly drawn story.... Full of real pleasures and unexpected wisdom, this book sweeps you along.”
—Esther Freud, author of
“Writing with warmth, humor, and control, Segal brings to life an impressively large cast of characters, and makes
a generous, memorable first novel that I found hard to put down.”
—Stephen McCauley, author of
The Object of My Affection
“I was captivated by this alluring novel.... Segal writes with dazzling psychological precision, conjuring up characters who are complex, engaging, and utterly real.”
—Margaret Leroy, author of
The Soldier’s Wife
FOR MY PARENTS
In the rotation of crops there was a recognized season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown more than once.
The Age of Innocence
Adam had, for the occasion, bought a new suit. He had wavered between dandyish black, chalk-striped and double-breasted, and a more traditional two-button jacket in deep navy wool. After some consideration he had chosen the navy. It seemed a more appropriate suit for a man who was newly engaged.
And now he was in the suit and in synagogue, considering the stained-glass windows that painted a dappled light, pale rose and paler sapphire, onto the painted faces in the women’s gallery. There were three of these windows—a red-flamed golden candelabra for Chanukah; a rainbow in a cobalt sky with white leaded doves swooping beneath its arch; and a third pane in which acid green palm trees framed the two rounded, silvery tablets of the Decalogue, an orange and lemon sunburst above them. Beneath this one sat Rachel Gilbert between her mother and her grandmother, looking intently at the pulpit. Adam, in turn, lowered his eyes from the windows and looked intently at Rachel.
They had been together since they were sixteen—twelve years last summer. For twelve years she had been his girlfriend and now, for a week, she had been his fiancée. And it all felt different. He could never have anticipated the shift, profound and inarticulable, that had taken place when he had seen the ring over which he had agonized winking on Rachel’s slender finger. It was more than possession, more than union, more than love. It was absolute confidence. It was certainty, and a promise of certainty always.
Beside him Jasper Cohen stirred suddenly, shifting his bulk beneath the folds of his white prayer shawl. “Rachel’s cousin’s here.” He nudged Adam in the ribs with a heavy elbow and nodded toward the balcony where the Gilbert women were ranged, coiffed and contemplative, in a mahogany pew. Rachel’s mother, Jaffa Gilbert, sat closest to the rabbi, her cropped and hennaed hair hidden beneath a green hat, red-framed glasses on a red plastic chain resting on the broad velvet shelf of her bosom. Beside her sat Rachel herself, demure in high-necked charcoal silk, looking down at her hands, her face half-obscured by a sheet of tumbling, dark hair. Rachel’s grandmother Ziva Schneider was on her other side, peering at the text in her lap with a grimace of either concentration or skepticism. And then the cousin, Ellie Schneider.
“You didn’t tell me she was back from New York.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“If there’s going to be a half-naked model in
then I care.” Jasper leaned over Adam, straining to see. “God, she’s tall. You’d need a stepladder to get up there.”
“Too tall for me. You could handle her.” Jasper flipped over a few pages of his prayer book without looking at them. “When are we going to get hold of that porn film she was in?”
“Art house,” Adam hissed. Long inured to Jasper’s indiscretion, he was nonetheless alarmed by it on this occasion. Whatever other rumors might be circulating about her, he did not want the congregation thinking his fiancée’s cousin was a porn star.
Jasper snorted, loudly. Jasper did everything loudly. He was not secure enough to believe that anyone would pay him attention unless he made himself unavoidable.
“Arse house, maybe. I’ve seen clips on YouTube, mate, it’s porn. We’ve got to order it.”
“No it’s not porn or no we shouldn’t order it? Gideon said that they censored half an hour from the final version but you can still get it uncut in the States.”
“Gideon didn’t say that, I said that. Rachel was upset about it.”
“Well, either way, Columbia kicked her out for doing it so there’s got to be something worth seeing.”
“Shh,” said Adam finally, frowning. He was not the only one, he noticed. Whispered conversation among the men in the back pews was in general permissible, encouraged even, if the content was engaging enough for the surrounding eavesdroppers. Football, in particular, was a much beloved topic. Services on the High Holidays were long; it was understood that one had to pass the time. But sustained discussion about porn during Kol Nidre—the beginning of Yom Kippur and a significant, spiritual incantation—was pushing lenience to its limit. The congregation was fasting until sunset tomorrow night; in the meantime they were meant to be atoning. Adam too had seen clips of Ellie Schneider’s acting debut on the Internet; in one she was delivering a breathy and hypnotically rhythmic monologue to the camera, wearing only a stained Columbia University T-shirt while the rest of her was exposed and exploited by a menacing costar. Synagogue was not a place in which he felt comfortable recalling it. Around them the
prayer continued. For the sin we have committed before you by improper thoughts. For the sin we have committed before you through speech. Pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.
Adam rejected the memory with some effort and instead focused on the women’s gallery, hoping to catch Rachel’s attention. She looked down at him and widened her eyes. From her expression he could see that she had a great deal to say and was desperate to say it—her cousin was embarrassing her; she could not believe that Ellie was in
at all, let alone that the girl had come to Kol Nidre exposing skin from clavicle to navel, wearing a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers—trousers!—that clung and shimmered as if she’d been dipped in crude oil. Adam needed little more than a glance to understand Rachel’s signaling, for the subtle contractions of her lips and the arching of her dark brows were a language long mastered. He knew their vocabulary, and every expression of her lovely face. He did not see the appeal of unpredictable women. Rachel never surprised him, and he considered it a testament to their intimacy that he could predict her reactions with complete confidence. Life, he knew, provided enough of the unexpected. Adam had perspective. A steady and loyal copilot was more important than whatever passing frisson might come with more spontaneous spirits. He smiled at her.
Outside the synagogue Adam waited for Rachel and her family. For late September it was warm, tenacious leaves still green and living on the oaks that stood like looming sentries along the edge of the empty parking lot. Tonight, people were leaving slowly, taking their time to fold prayer shawls, gather coats, greet friends. The fast decreed that there would be no supper; nothing at all, in fact, until the same time tomorrow evening when they would all be leaving synagogue once again, but at a more urgent pace. Tonight they would have to be sated with spiritual—or at least social—sustenance. Men and women were now reunited after the service and families reassembled, lingering on the steps and drifting out past Adam, calling good-byes to one another into the hazy autumn darkness.
“Hi. Here again.”
The voice was American, low and close behind his shoulder. He turned to find Ellie Schneider winding a long gray scarf around her neck, an unlit cigarette already in one hand.
Until now Adam had had a clear image of Rachel’s cousin in his mind assembled from magazines and the Internet—limbs of satin; champagne blond hair; high cheekbones; and high, pointed breasts. He knew about her other life beyond the page, of course. In reality the girl was a mess. But in photographs her pale skin was as smooth as poured cream, and the bright green eyes, Disney wide, evoked a fresh-faced innocence entirely at odds with the darkness he knew was behind them. And so the darkness was easy to ignore. She was related to his girlfriend and he had taken a proprietary interest.