The Innocents by Francesca Segal

I owe Francesca Segal a debt of gratitude, because by reworking The Age of Innocence in a contemporary setting she inspired me to go back and reread Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It was, and is, a joy, and Edith Wharton’s understanding and eloquence have me very nearly lost for words.

Comparisons are inevitable, of course they are, but Francesca Segal’s love and understanding of her source material shines, and she has used it well to create a contemporary novel that can stand or fall on its own merits.

12190308The central story is simple:

Adam  and his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, are looking towards marriage, but Adam’s equilibrium is disturbed when Rachel’s cousin, Ellie, comes home. Ellie defied convention, and her Jewish family was very conventional, to become a model and to live the high life, and she was so very different to the very conventional Rachel, who only wanted to be a wife, a lady who lunches, and one day a mother. Adam loved Rachel and everything she stood for, but he was drawn to Ellie and to the possibility of a very different life.

The central question was intriguing: do you stay with everything safe and familiar, or do you leave that behind to reach out for something new, knowing that you might never be able to go back?

At first the story seemed slow, but in time I was caught up by complex, believable characters, by a wonderfully evoked setting, and by lovely writing.

That writing was crisp and clear, and rich with detail. It showed such understanding, and such careful observation. And from time to time I noticed a wonderfully dry wit.

There was more than enough to hold me, even though I knew exactly how the story would play out.

The resetting of a story originally set in New York high society at the end of the nineteenth century in an insular Jewish community, in present day north London, was inspired. So many details could be matched, so many parallels could be drawn, and there were many moments when I thought that the execution was inspired. But there were also moments that didn’t work, because there were difference. There were few wrong notes, but I was aware that each one was the result of reworking a scene or an exchange from The Age of Innocence that would not have played out the same way in the present day.

I wondered if I had maybe done the wrong thing, re-reading The Age of Innocence before I picked up The Innocents, but I tend to think not. familiarity with the source material gave me a greater appreciation of The Innocents and the wrong notes still would have been wrong, I just wouldn’t have known why.

So I would say read The Age of Innocence first and then read The Innocents. The first novel is perfect and the second is a fine tribute to it, and a fascinating contemporary novel.

It leaves me intrigued to see what Francesca Segal might do next ….

5 responses

  1. I’m so glad you liked this! I did, too. I agree that people should read Edith first, then this one. I read them about 20 years apart 🙂 but I’m looking forward to re-reading The Age of Innocence, maybe this fall.

  2. I read this earlier in the year and was amazed by its fresh take on the age-old themes from The Age of Innocence. I also loved the setting. Yes, some of the plot turns didn’t work, but I think it was a very admirable effort and a great story on its own.

  3. I read The Age of Innocence years and years ago. I don’t think it made much of an impression at the time, but your review has inspired me to pick it up again and I think I’ll give Francesca Segal’s book a go too.

  4. I love The Age of Innocence–Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. I didn’t know this book, The Innocents, was inspired by Wharton’s–it totally makes me want to read it. Thanks for another great review!

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