“With this novel,” Francesca Segal says of The Awkward Age, to be published by Riverhead on May 16, “I was interested in exploring the love affair between a mother and a daughter. I was also interested in good people living in close quarters almost going out of their way to make each other’s lives as difficult as possible.”
Though she sounds, on the phone from London, thoroughly British, Segal, 36, is a daughter of Love Story author—and Harvard professor—Erich Segal. She grew up shuttling between the United States and the United Kingdom. Given her geographic allegiances, it’s no surprise that her two novels tip their hats to those great chroniclers of Anglo-American relations, Edith Wharton and Henry James.
Segal’s previous novel, The Innocents (2012), the story of an engaged young attorney wrestling with temptation in a culturally isolated, affluent Jewish community in northwest London, was a comedy of manners that updated and revised Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. The Awkward Age, though sharing its title with James’s 1899 novel of the same name, stands entirely on its own.
Segal, now the mother of 18-month-old twin daughters, says she was preoccupied by questions of motherhood while writing The Awkward Age, in which a widowed English piano teacher, Julia, falls in love with a divorced American obstetrician, James, who loves her back. If only it were that simple. As befits their middle years, each comes with encumbrances: Among his: an overbearing ex-wife; among hers: an opinionated set of in-laws who, though they share highbrow interests in literature and music, suffer their own romantic complications.
More problematically, Julia and James each brings to their relationship a beloved and hormonally charged teenager: His: the academically ambitious Nathan; hers: the artistic and undisciplined Gwen—both possibly a little spoiled. As Segal sets the scene in her very first, utterly un-Jamesian sentence, “The teenagers would fuck it up, certainly they always tried; it was the only impulse Gwen and Nathan had in common.” And so they do, though whether fatally or not remains in question.
Amazon Book Review: First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed this book. You write so well! The plot has a lot of tension, but more important, your sentences are totally pleasurable to read. How long did this take you to write?
Francesca Segal: Oh, I’m so glad you liked it. I was working on it for about three years. So much of my writing time is spent in effortful procrastination, like defrosting the refrigerator. I’ve come to accept that its part of the process.
How much inspiration did you take from Henry James’s novel The Awkward Age?
I actually didn’t read it until after I’d written the book. I just fell in love with the title. The reason I fell upon it with such glee is that we block teenagers into an “awkward age,” but it’s such a myth. All the characters are at awkward points of transition, and they are all as worthy of exploration. Julia has this blossoming, newly sexual daughter in the house, when so much is changing for her. For Iris and Philip [Julia’s in-laws], it’s a different kind of awkward age. They are going through all these changes. But women going through the menopause should be granted the same kind of leeway as teenagers are. You know, why not? I think there are more interesting multiple awkward ages than we initially think.
What did you think of James’s The Awkward Age when you finally did read it?
It’s not my favorite of his novels, I’m afraid. I think What Maisie Knew is. Or maybe The Golden Bowl.
You borrow Anne Stevenson’s “Poem for a Daughter” as your epigraph. It includes the lines,
“A woman’s life is her own/ until it is taken away/ by a first, particular cry.” Do you think it’s fair to say that both of your novels are about renunciation?
That’s the first time someone’s said that! I feel totally exposed. But that is true.
Did you come a long way from the first book to the second?
Yeah, I did in that I lived half a decade. I was not a parent when I began The Awkward Age. It’s not a subject that I came to because of being a parent, but I think I’m interested in family. It’s kind of a cop-out thing to say, but with this novel I was interested in exploring the love affair between a mother and a daughter. I was also interested in good people living in close quarters almost going out of their way to make each other’s lives as difficult as possible. That was the germ of it. I think I was probably on a level thinking about whether or not parenthood was something I was interested in or not.
One thing that’s interesting to me about your book is that Julia, the mother who is really the central protagonist of the book, is also very fallible—much more so, really, than James, the man she loves. Is Julia a more complicated creature than James?
She’s been through more. James has been blessed with a relatively straightforward life.
I’m interested in real people. That’s what I really enjoy and consider the challenge to create someone with nuance. That’s what I want to read about: someone who feels more than two dimensional.
This is a three-generational story. Did you start with the structure in mind?
No, I didn’t, until I was deep in the novel and then it appeared that Iris [Julia’s mother-in-law] would be a hugely important part of it.
You set your first book, The Innocents, in very culturally specific setting, among a conservative Jewish community in northwest London. Though this new book is set in London again, and the families are Jewish, they seem to live in a broader and more diverse environment, which stretches in one direction to Boston and in the other to the south of France. Were you aiming to write something more accessible?
The first book was a code of manners about that world, and I’ve done that now and it wasn’t interesting to me to revisit that community. This is more a portrait of a community and a circumstance. Julia’s family setup is the norm and accepted and extremely common now. So that was what I was interested in.
You write very funny dialogue. Have you ever done screenwriting?
I would absolutely love to. That is my fantasy job, just to sit around with other writers and try to out-funny each other.
You do write journalism, don’t you?
I used to write a debut fiction column for The Observer. It was a lot of work but also a total joy. I still do some reviewing and a little interviewing. Journalism is a real pleasure as a palate cleanser to longer work.
Without spoiling anything for future readers of The Awkward Age, you’ve written a very ambiguous ending. Do you have in mind what happens next?
I know very clearly what I want to happen. There’s space for more than one interpretation. I don’t have a secret relationship with the characters. I haven’t stayed in touch with them afterward! But I know what I hope.
Thank you so much, Francesca. It was fun to talk to you. I hope your book gets all the attention it deserves.