In the wake of the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth, there has been much discussion of the writer, from Jonathan Franzen’s polarizing New Yorker piece to the inevitable “Downton Abbey” comparisons.
But in many ways, Francesca Segal’s The Innocents is the most ambitious commentary of them all. In this impressive debut novel, Wharton’s masterpiece The Age of Innocence is imagined as a contemporary tale, set in the insular Jewish suburb of North West London.
In Segal’s update, “gentleman lawyer” Newland Archer is recast as Adam Newman, a good Jewish boy set to marry his high school sweetheart, Rachel Gilbert, whom he met on a trip to Israel in high school. All is going according to plan when Rachel’s long-estranged cousin Ellie re-enters the community after being kicked out of Columbia University for making a pornographic video. Tall, sexy and irreverent, Ellie is like nobody Adam has ever met—certainly the exact opposite of his bubbly, carb-counting and achingly familiar fiancée. As the wedding approaches, Adam’s desire for Ellie increases and, much like Wharton’s cowardly hero, he struggles with how much rebellion he is willing to embrace.
Rachel and Ellie are more self-assured than their Age of Innocence counterparts. Ellie recognizes Adam’s feelings from the onset and is both discouraging and complicit in his pseudo-conquest. Likewise, Rachel emerges as more intelligent than she initially lets on, finding ways to re-engage her precious “Ads” at the very moments he seems closest to abandoning her.
This three-person power play is interesting enough already, but what makes The Innocents so smart and compelling is the way in which Segal renders the story entirely her own. Via her expert knowledge of her characters’ milieu, readers are granted intimate access to a wonderfully specific world. Yet the Gilberts’ upper-middle class preoccupation with Purim plays and Friday night dinners and holidays on the Red Sea will ring true not only to those familiar with such traditions, but also to anyone who comes from a similarly cloistered community.