Innocents (Segal)

The Innocents
Francesca Segal, 2012
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 978

A smart and slyly funny tale of love, temptation, confusion, and commitment; a triumphant and beautifully executed recasting of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

Newly engaged and unthinkingly self-satisfied, twenty-eight-year-old Adam Newman is the prize catch of Temple Fortune, a small, tight-knit Jewish suburb of London. He has been dating Rachel Gilbert since they were both sixteen and now, to the relief and happiness of the entire Gilbert family, they are finally to marry.

To Adam, Rachel embodies the highest values of Temple Fortune; she is innocent, conventional, and entirely secure in her community—a place in which everyone still knows the whereabouts of their nursery school classmates. Marrying Rachel will cement Adam's role in a warm, inclusive family he loves.

But as the vast machinery of the wedding gathers momentum, Adam feels the first faint touches of claustrophobia, and when Rachel's younger cousin Ellie Schneider moves home from New York, she unsettles Adam more than he'd care to admit.

Ellie—beautiful, vulnerable, and fiercely independent—offers a liberation that he hadn't known existed: a freedom from the loving interference and frustrating parochialism of North West London. Adam finds himself questioning everything, suddenly torn between security and exhilaration, tradition and independence. What might he be missing by staying close to home? (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
• Birth—1980
Where—London, England, UK
Education—Oxford University
Awards—Costa First Novel Award (more below)
Currently—lives in London, England

Francesca Segal is a British writer and author of two well regarded novels, The Innocents (2012) and The Awkward Age (2017). She is one of two daughters of Erich Segal, most widely known as the author of Love Story, the bestseller novel turned blockbuster movie staring Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal.

Born in London, Francesca was brought up between the UK and America, where her father taught Greek and Latin at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities. She returned to England to take her degree at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

Since then, Segal has worked as a journalist and author. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, and Vogue (both UK and US), among others. She has been a features writer at Tatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in The Observer.

For her first novel, The Innocents, Segal received the Costa First Novel Award, the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the Sami Rohr Prize, and a Betty Trask Award. She was also long-listed for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). Segal lives in London. (Adapted from the publisher and Wikipedia. Retrieved on 5/25/2017.)

Book Reviews
[A] delightful first novel... wise, witty and observant.
London Times

Segal writes with an understated elegance.
Observer (UK)

"With understated wit, empathy and a cinematic eye of detail, Segal brings alive a host of characters so robust that you can easily imagine them onscreen... A winning debut novel.

A crafty homage... [Segal] writes with engaging warmth.
Entertainment Weekly

Segal’s debut novel is an example of how one can be influenced by great writers who’ve come before yet not be trapped by them. Nice, reliable Adam is engaged to Rachel, the perfect Jewish girl, in a closely knit North West London Jewish community. But Rachel’s free-spirited cousin Ellie, back from a scandalous time in the U.S., makes him feel not so nice and not so reliable. He falls for Ellie, but the machinations of both his fiancée and his community create obstacles to his desires. Inspired by The Age of Innocence, Segal’s book is warmer, funnier, and paints a more dynamic and human portrait of a functional community that is a wonderful juxtaposition to Wharton’s cold social strata in Gilded Age New York. Adam is just as much of a coward as Newland Archer, more in love with the idea of rebellion than actually capable of committing the act. Rachel echoes May Welland’s passive aggressiveness, yet goes after what she wants with more courage when faced with tough choices. Ellie is far more self-aware and less of a victim than Ellen Olenska, which makes her more interesting and sympathetic. The real hero of the book is Lawrence, Adam’s father-in-law, a man who deeply loves his family, appreciates the community, utilizes his “quiet faith,” and is profoundly grateful for his life. The book is full of delightful moments, such as Lawrence’s comment, “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” Segal took the theme of a well-known novel and made it her own. Lively and entertaining.
Publishers Weekly

Are communities cocoons sheltering us from the rigors of the world, or are they wet blankets stifling creativity and experimentation? That's the quandary facing Adam Newman, a product of the close-knit Jewish community centered around Temple Fortune, London NW11, an enclave that takes care of its own from cradle to grave...and beyond. For 12 years, he has been engaged to Rachel Gilbert and has been a member of her father's legal firm. When cousin Ellie Schneider appears on the scene, trailing clouds of marijuana and rumors of online pornography, Adam is torn between what seems like an unending succession of lovingly detailed family meals (guaranteed to make you reach for the nearest poppy seed coffee cake) and what Ellie might have to offer. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it is. In the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edith Wharton, this imitation of The Age of Innocence is the sincerest form of flattery. The unexpressed moral might be plus ça change. Verdict: Readers who enjoy fast-paced, gently satirical literary novels, fans of Allegra Goodman, and book group participants will find a Shabbat dinner's worth of noshing in this accomplished debut novel by the daughter of author Erich Segal.—Bob Lunn, formerly with Kansas City P.L., MO
Library Journal

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence gets a reboot in this novel set in a present-day London Jewish enclave.... Segal isn't the ornate stylist Wharton is, but she writes elegantly and thoughtfully about Adam's growing sense of entrapment, and she excels at showing how a family's admirable supportiveness can suddenly feel like smothering.... Overall this is a well-tuned portrait of a couple whose connection proves to be much more tenuous than expected, and of religious rituals that prove more meaningful than they seem. Segal thoughtfully ties in family Holocaust lore and high-holiday gatherings to show that those long-standing bonds are tough to break. Even if the plot and themes are second-hand, this is an emotionally and intellectually astute debut.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Segal’s debut novel is a re-telling of the classic novel The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie adaptation of The Age of Innocence, discuss the specific ways in which The Innocents parallels Wharton’s novel, and then consider the important ways in which it departs from her novel. Does knowledge of this parallel add to your understanding of Segal’s novel, or does it complicate it?

2. Apart from Adam’s initial physical attraction to Ellie, what in the beginning of the novel foreshadowed that Adam and Rachel were not, perhaps, as ideally suited to one another as he’d thought for the past 12 years?

3. How did the back-story about Jackie’s death help you to sympathize with Ellie? What aspects of her personality seem most likely a result of her mother’s early death and her father’s subsequent emotional distance?

4. Discuss Ziva’s relationship with Ellie and consider how the two women are similar in terms of being survivors. How much do you think this accounted for their mutual affection for one another? Could any of the others—Jaffa, Rachel, Adam—have truly understood Ziva? Why or why not?

5. Compare Ellie’s character with that of Rachel’s, and discuss Adam’s inability to commit wholly to just one of them for most of the novel. Between the two women, whom did you prefer? With whom did you sympathize the most? Do you think Adam made the right choice, in the end?

6. Also, compare and contrast the novel’s “Evan Goodman” financial scandal with recent events in the financial sector of our own culture—such as the Bernie Madoff scandal. Discuss how the ordeal operates as a catalyst and as a complication of the plot within the novel. Do you think it can also work as a symbol with any of Segal’s themes in the book? Why or why not?

7. How well does Segal portray the social, psychological, religious, and emotional lives of the Jewish community in North London? Do you feel that she conveys a reasonable and realistic portrait of this large and diverse group of people? What were her greatest strengths in her depiction, as well as her weaknesses?

8. Similarly, how did characters like Ziva Schneider help you to understand the Israeli immigrant experience? In particular, what did the novel help to show about the Jewish survivors of World War II, and their difficulties with nationality and assimilation into post-World War II European society?

9. Is Rachel’s character a passive one? Would you call her passive aggressive? Why or why not? By the end of the novel, in what significant ways has her character changed?

10. Discuss how Segal incorporates the subject of death into her novel – would you call her handling of the subject matter sensitive? Objective? Realistic? Consider the many moments in the novel where death is encountered or referenced and discuss Segal’s success when it comes to writing about the end of life and its impact on those who remain.

11. Similarly, discuss Segal’s choice of setting for this adaptation of Wharton’s novel. In what important ways does the Jewish community of North London in the early 2000’s parallel late 19th century New York? Discuss the key characteristics that these communities share, and then discuss their important differences.

12. Discuss the significance of Segal’s title to the characters in her book. Not only does the title recall Wharton’s novel, but it reflects a characteristic of the group of people she’s writing about, as well as specific characters. Discuss the ways in which The Innocents is both a sincere title and an ironic one.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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