Innocents (Review)


The Innocents
Francesca Segal
288 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2012
Francesca Segal's smart update of The Age of Innocence is pitch perfect—from the homonym of the titles to the satirical gaze leveled at social conformity. Even character names are parallel—Adam Newman for Newland Archer, and Ellie for Ellen.

Segal, though, offers a more nuanced judgment of community than Edith Wharton does. The Innocents' tight-knit Jewish enclave in 21st-century North London is far more benign, if still benighted, than the upper-crust of Manhattan's late 19th century. And the conformity Adam Newman struggles against is as much in his mind as imposed from without.

All is perfect in the life of 28-year-old Adam Newman—a fine job, a circle of loyal friends, and a beautiful fiancee, Rachel Gilbert, whom he has loved since his early teens. But perfection is ever vulnerable, and for Adam its disruption comes in the form of Ellie Schneider, Rachel's beautiful but errant cousin.

Ellie, abandoned by her father early on, was raised haphazardly in New York, from where she has recently returned to London. The extended Gilbert family and Jewish community expect Ellie to keep her transgressive life under wraps—or as Ellie more starkly puts it...

to be something I'm not.... They want me to be perfect like Rachel or expect me to be broken and helpless in a way that would be more palatable, I guess, or sympathetic.

Ellie brandishes an honesty and intensity for life that shocks Adam out his complacency. He senses something "vast and incalculable" in Ellie, which lays bare the prosaic quality of his own and Rachel's life. "God knows, I am not Rachel," Ellie says to Adam, "but I get through the day...and that should be enough."

It is more than enough for Adam, who becomes "sick with lust" as he falls increasingly under Ellie's spell. But he is keenly aware of how much it will cost him should he act on his desire.

The main problem with Segal's handling of the Wharton story is the difficulty in understanding what Adam sees in Rachel other than his devotion to her family. As Ellie's character is delineated more clearly, Rachel comes off as stupifyingly vacuous. Obviously the two young women are drawn in strict contrast to one another, but by the end of the novel Segal has so diminished Rachel that it lacks credibility for Adam to have loved her in the first place.

Minor carping aside (and it is minor), The Innocents is a wonderful, beautifully written book, full of wit and humor—worthy to stand along side Edith Wharton's original. The novel is an accomplished debut for Francesca Segal. Be sure to read this work—in conjunction with the original, The Age of Innocence, and decide whether either Adam or Newland, in Wharton's novel, make the right choice in the end.

See our Reading Guide for The Innocents.

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