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 ….

Works in Progress

I will never be a one book at a time girl. I need a book to hand for a variety of possible moods and for different concentration level. I need big books that I know I can get lost in and I need small books that will fit in my handbag ….

But it’s easy to go too far, to have a book too many. And I think I’m on the edge of that, and so I’m going to take stock.

Nine books …

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I struggled with Trollope for a long time, but a couple of months ago I picked this one up and I began to finally understand why so many love him. But I put it to one side to finish a library book that someone else had reserved and didn’t pick it up again. I really must!

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I very much like the look of The Innocents by Francesca Segal, but I thought I would reread the book that inspired it before I picked it up. It’s a long time since I read The age of Innocence, and I am pleased to report that I still love it and that it is a fascinating book to study even when you are familiar with the story, the characters, the milieu.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

I’d had a difficult day and my Virago and Persephone bookcases were calling me loudly. There is no better therapy. I’d read that this was lovely and it is, so I’m reading it slowly.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark

I’ve been reading this one on and off for years, going back and forth, back and forth. Not because I’ve forgotten anything important, but because I love the journey and I love the details …

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

This is my handbag book of the moment. It’s a wonderful, distinctive piece of crime writing, and I plan to finish it in my lunch break tomorrow.

The Harbour by Francesca Brill

This arrived in the post yesterday, and it was one of those books that just made me start reading straight away. It’s a big, dramatic story of love and history, set in Hong Kong during World War II, and I have a feeling I’m going to whistle through – it’s compulsive reading!

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

This is a lovely childhood memoir, packed full of stories and drawings. It’s one of those books I could happily live in, but I must finish and give it back to the library.

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

I am loving this: a big romantic epic set against the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It got buried under knitting and newspaper on the coffee table for a while but I’ve pulled it out again because I do want to press on.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

(not pictured)

I picked this up for last month’s Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Readalong, and I could see straight away that it was a great book, but I just didn’t have the concentration to do it justice. I’m going to finish it before I move on to this month’s book, The Sleeping Beauty, to keep my chronology straight …

And I think that’s it. All good books, all books I want to finish, and I must finish at least two of them before I pick up anything new.

But nine works in progress is silly, and I haven’t even counted books for long term readalongs!

How many books do you read at a time? How do you keep track?

Please tell!