Twenty-eight-year-old Adam Newman has recently become engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Rachel Gilbert. Both Adam and Rachel grew up within the tight-knit Jewish community in North West London, and theirs is the perfect match. Rachel is sweet, attractive, and traditional, the beloved daughter of a well-respected family. Adam is attentive and courteous, a lawyer at Rachel’s father’s firm – in short, he is a respectful and respectable young Jewish man. Their wedding has been much-anticipated by their families and their community, and both Adam and Rachel are buzzing with excitement for their upcoming nuptials.
But soon after their engagement, Rachel’s unconventional cousin, Ellie Schneider, returns to London after many years living in America. With Ellie’s arrival come whispers of scandal: she’s rumored to have lived a life of substance abuse and promiscuity in New York, spending her time with married men and, allegedly, starring in a porn film. Ellie is unfamiliar, and unconcerned, with the social rules that govern her family’s community, and she causes discomfort, upheaval, and outrage with every move. The family is alternately embarrassed by and protective of Ellie, constantly working hard to do damage control in her wake, but Adam finds himself increasingly drawn to his fiancée’s cousin. She is fiercely independent, but she’s also grappling with past heartaches and inner demons. Ellie’s combination of beauty, independence, and vulnerability is irresistible to Adam, and his growing relationship with her causes him to see his own community and lifestyle – and its alternatives – in a new light. As he deliberates between the tradition he’s always known and the adventure he can only imagine, Adam’s choices have the potential to shake his family and community to the core.
Does this plot sound familiar? If you’ve read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, (or seen the film adaptation, for that matter), then it should. Francesca Segal’s debut novel, The Innocents, is an updated version of Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the upper class of 1870s New York. To attempt such a feat is certainly daring, but Segal rises to the challenge. It’s clear from the first chapter that the British Jewish community she describes in fascinating detail does bear striking resemblance to the society Wharton critiqued almost a century ago. The events in The Innocents mirror those in The Age of Innocence quite closely, and even Segal’s language is elevated to imitate Wharton’s prose. The overall effect is a pleasing one, and the book is an engaging read, both as a modern update to an old favorite and as a standalone novel in its own right.
What’s problematic, though, is the characterization of the women Adam loves. While reading, I kept asking myself: is this really what May Welland and Ellen Olenska would be like if they lived now? Ellen did indeed bring scandal to New York, but are her offenses equivalent to starring in porn? Ellen attends events dressed in strange European clothes, but would her modern-day counterpart show up to synagogue “exposing skin from clavicle to navel,” or to a formal event in blue jeans? And the grating aspects of Rachel’s personality go beyond the prescribed innocence and inability to formulate opinions that May demonstrates. While on vacation with her family, Rachel sends Adam an email that includes the line, “I switched bikinis from the white one to the pink one because yesterday I fell asleep and now I’ve got tan lines – nooooo!” and I simply refuse to believe that May’s purity and conventionality would translate to such an intolerable type of 21st century woman. At times it’s hard to believe that someone like Newland Archer would ever love either of these women, but Adam appears to love them both. This is not to say that Segal’s characters and their relationships are not believable, but they are less complex than Wharton’s and certainly less appealing than many of the real-life women that may exist in London and in the British Jewish community today.
Still, Segal pulls off an impressive feat: The Innocents is decidedly readable, and I found myself engrossed in the story even though I knew each plot point in advance. This is due in large part to Segal’s willingness to dispense with Wharton’s purpose. While she is certainly taking an honest look at this community with which she is clearly quite familiar, her critique is not nearly as harsh as Wharton’s critique of wealthy New York. This community has its faults and Segal lays them bare, allowing Adam to pick them apart and turn them over quite carefully. But it has its strengths too, and the reader is allowed to see how one might prefer this community to a life of romance and excitement. Adam and Rachel’s family and friends rally around each other unfailingly, in times of joy and in times of distress, and their love and support for one another is unconditional. Segal allows this love and light to shine through the stifling, controlling behavior of the community, and the result is a book that is full of something Wharton’s novel lacks: hope.