11 March 2012

Book (P)Review: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

Okay, I'm just going to say this up front: the first time I picked up The Innocents, it was for the beautiful cover.  I was completely drawn to it.  Then my sales rep told me that it was a retelling of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, at which point I was totally sold. Ethan Frome notwithstanding, I'm a big fan of Wharton, and though The Age of Innocence isn't my favorite of her books, I knew that this book would go home with me to start reading right away.

Francesca Segal transplants Wharton's story from late 19th century New York City to contemporary London, particularly North West London, and more particularly, the Jewish community thereof. As someone who has lived in very WASPy small towns for most of her life, the world Segal creates was endlessly exotic and fascinating.  If I were a less lazy reader, I would have kept a dictionary (or at least internet access) handy while I read, because it seemed like at least every other page had a word or phrase utterly unfamiliar to me. 

Adam Newman and Rachel Gilbert have been the "it" couple for years, and their entire society takes their eventual marriage as a given. Adam works for Rachel's father, their families have known each other for years, and he is smugly self-satisfied with Rachel's innocent, traditional ways and what that means for their future family. (He's also inordinately proud that he's the only man who's ever settled himself between her loins--eww!) Rachel is the very proper, much-doted-upon older daughter of a wealthy business scion whose family has always been his first priority. Enter Ellie Schneider, Rachel's first cousin, who life has been rocked both by early tragedy and recent scandal, and things start to fall apart. Ellie, a sophisticated and uber-sexy young model, is as unconventional as her cousin is traditional, and eventually Adam's comparisons between the cousins start to tilt in Ellie's favor. But will he act on it, with the eve of his marriage drawing ever nigh?

Anybody who is familiar with The Age of Innocence knows how this book will play out. Segal is remarkable faithful to Wharton's template while creating a world all her own. It's been years since I read the original (at least 15), so I may be misremembering nuances of Wharton's characters, but Segal's protagonists are largely unlikeable.  Adam is, as I said, rather smug and superior throughout most of the book and only near the end realizes he was deluding himself.  Rachel is spoiled and whiny, a girlish woman who actually pouts when she doesn't get her way. Ellie is so simultaneously damaged and defensive of her misguided life choices that it's hard to get a true reading of her.

Olivia, Adam's intellectual sister who resides mostly at Oxford for the duration of the book, is a terrific, if under-used minor character. She also thumbs her nose at her mother's conventions but is still able to see the value of her people's traditions. And then there's Ziva, Ellie and Rachel's grandmother, who is the matriarch of the Gilbert clan and a survivor.  She alone seems to value Ellie's eccentric behavior over Rachel's almost ruthless devotion to the social mores that dictate her lifestyle, her dress, her home.

I enjoyed this book, but I didn't love it, as I simply cannot love a book if I do not also love its characters.  It's a light and easy read and it will be published by Voice in June 2012.  It's a book I suggest for fans of Wharton's book (obviously), readers who enjoy lighter fare tempered with some gravity, and readers who enjoy the British and/or Jewish cultures. Here are some of the passages I liked:

"It is not a contradiction to be a Jew and an atheist--on the God question, Judaism might well be the broadest church of them all....There is a place for you in a synagogue if you don't believe, if you do believe, if you're not sure, of if you only believe during brief moments of turbulence on airplanes or in the final five minutes of a football match in which only divine intervention might save you (27)."

On the upside in living in such a tightly knit community: "There was no life event--marriage, birth, parenthood, or loss--through which one need ever walk alone. Twenty-five other people were always poised to help. The other side of interference was support (103)."

"The older contingent were the fellow members of the Jewish Care Holocaust survivors' group. At their lunches they did not talk about their experiences, Ziva told her family; often nothing was said at all. They spoke of politics, of literature, of their grandchildren. But to be there together was restful, in a place where volunteers ensured there would always be bread on the table. There was a balm in their silences together, just as their listening offered balm to those among them who did decide to talk. Others thought they could imagine, but no one else could know. And here they all were--Ziva's daily lunch companions, men and women shrinking with age but strengthened with pride at their own continued existence. To celebrate ninety when they faced death at nineteen, it was not nothing (215)."

Cheers--this counts as book #11 in my New Authors Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism!


  1. I am a huge Wharton fan too so I think I would like to read this one to see how it compares to The Age of Innocence. Thanks for the great review!

  2. THANKS for stopping by my blog and commenting on The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise.

    You really sound like you enjoyed it. I did too.

    Keep in touch if you like.


    Silver's Reviews

  3. Only here can I expect to get a little food to feed my Wharton fever. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  4. Ooooh, I'm kind of intrigued. Like you, that cover just grabbed me -- I made grabby hands at the monitor. But your review has tempered some of my eagerness as I need to like the characters to really love a novel -- and I kind of can't stand smug guys who are smug about sex and stuff. Still -- I'm a sucker for Wharton/Wharton-esque! V nice review!

  5. The cover would of drawn me in as well. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Safari Poet

  6. I so miss reading a good book! I haven't read one for months. Now focused on short stuff all the time. Reading must be one of the ten greatest pleasures in life. And to think that my father was illiterate.

  7. I'm a Wharton fan too although I find the quality of her work very inconsistent. Especially with her short stories. However, a retelling of Age of Innocence sounds interesting. Might have to check this one out.


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