The Innocents, Francesca Sega’s Costa Book Award winning debut novel is an absorbing, deceptively thoughtful and considered modern re-working of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence.
Shamefully, I’ve never read The Age Of Innocence, Wharton’s tale of scandal among the 19th century New York upper classes, so I came to The Innocents with no expectations. Segal has moved the Upper West Side to North London’s leafy suburbs and the large, liberal, yet morally rigid family-focused Jewish community that spills from the epicentre of London’s NW11.
Setting The Innocents in a tight-knit community with a strict moral code enables Segal to translate the storyline to modern times without it looking like a square 21st century peg in a stuffy 19th century round hole. Segal handles the transitions of era, country and changing values largely with aplomb and dexterity. There are a few times when the original story doesn’t quite fit the modern mould, but Wharton’s story of what it means to love (mostly) seamlessly slots into Segal’s newly realised narrative. As one character – an Eastend hipster no less – points out, maybe our inbuilt human code of right and wrong has nothing to do with culture or century; being kind isn’t the same thing as being conservative and conventional.
The story spins around Adam Newhouse, a strapping 6ft 2″ seemingly faultless Jewish boy with a flat in Primrose Hill and a beautiful fiancee, his childhood sweetheart Rachel. Everyone is super-dopey happy at the beginning of the novel, so naturally we need a villain to shake them out of this revelry.
Enter stage left; Rachel’s cousin Ellie who just happens to be a long-limbed model with a notorious past. Adam, despite himself, soon becomes infatuated by this glamorous creature, who – ta-da! – reads Dickens and loves her grandmother. Fortunately she has a dead mother and an absent father to take the edge off her perfection and allow her some misery points. (I think Ellie’s beauty, a hangover from The Age Of Innocence’s heroine Ellen Olenska, was a distraction, it made Adam’s longing for her look more like a teenage boy’s lust for a Loaded centrefold than a genuine, gut-wrenching love. Still people do risk a great deal for beauty).
Not only is Ellie super hot and always in sexily, disheveled, revealing clothes, she is way more fun than snooze-fest Rachel, whose interests extend as far as gossip magazines and making brownies for her man. Rachel, like many of the characters in the novel is both a stereotype and all too real; she’s insipid and vapid and completely disinterested in anything outside of her tiny, secure world. Only at the end, after going over a few of life’s speed bumps, does she become a little more tolerable.
From their testy first meeting, Ellie and Adam are poised on the precipice of a kingsize bed, but their story isn’t so simple, Segal is always one step ahead.
The Innocents may read like a straight-forward love triangle saga on, er, paper, but like Ellie, it’s far deeper and cleverer than I first gave it credit for. There’s layers of truth and astute observations among the everyday chatter of the Jewish matriarchs and the cheerful banter at feast day dinner tables. I live within a bagels throw of Adam and Rachel and their close-knit community, but I know little about it. Segal drew this world very evocatively and drew me into a community that knows great tragedy as well as great love. Despite the claustrophobia that crept up on me at the thought of being surrounded by people who could almost read my mind, the loyalty and the warmth and the protectiveness that emanated from the pages made me feel part of the family.
There were times when The Innocents was, like the average family, infuriating, and it did outstay its welcome by a few pages, but The Innocents is a stylish and elegant in its study of human nature and love.
by Suzanne Elliott