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The Innocents by Francesca Segal
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it was amazing
bookshelves: updated-classics, reviewed-bookkaholic, best-of-2012

(4.5) What a stunning debut from Francesca Segal. A 32-year-old first-time novelist has no business writing such a sophisticated, pitch-perfect homage to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Her strategy is that of Zadie Smith in her gorgeous On Beauty: giving a classic novel a new home in contemporary north London, but staying true to the emotional content – the interplay of love and desire, jealousy and frustration (in Smith’s case, the model is E.M. Forster’s Howards End). And yet knowledge of the parent text is entirely unnecessary. Both On Beauty and The Innocents are thoroughly accomplished stand-alone tales.

Segal’s love triangle is set in a world I know very little about: the tight-knit Jewish community of northwest London. Adam Newman has been happily paired with Rachel Gilbert for nearly 12 years, since they were Jewish secondary school sweethearts. Now newly engaged, Adam and Rachel seem set to follow in Rachel’s parents’ footsteps into the role of pillars of the community. But suddenly, inevitably, their perfect world is threatened by the return to London of Rachel’s bad-girl American cousin, Ellie Schneider. Her first appearance is certainly striking: she shows up to synagogue in a wildly immodest model’s outfit, an instant visual metonym for her bold, seductive persona. Ellie has been dishonorably released from her creative writing course at Columbia University for appearing in a pornographic ‘art film’, with her sexpot image further enhanced by the scandal surrounding Marshall Bruce, a New York art dealer and socialite. Among his extramarital relationships was one with Ellie, who was underage at the time he was paying her monthly deposits. Porn star? Paid for sexual favors? Making a living from her physical attributes? She is everything the safe, predictable Rachel is not, and Adam quickly becomes utterly enchanted with her.

The rest of the novel plays out as a (somewhat predictable) will-they, won’t-they game of manners. My limited knowledge of Edith Wharton’s work (I read Ethan Frome a little under seven years ago) suggested to me that whether the would-be lovers got together or not, there was no possibility of their dalliance ending happily. And yet Segal is remarkably kind and gentle to all her characters – we as readers feel sympathetic to Ellie’s orphan-waif loneliness, Adam’s conflicted love and loyalty, and Rachel’s jealous guarding of her ‘ordinary’ life all at the same time. We don’t take sides because Segal lets us see the beauty and validity of all sides.

Each character is expertly drawn, from Adam’s sex-obsessed best mate Jasper to 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and matriarch Ziva. It is clear that Segal knows her Jewish community intimately, such that she can portray it both lovingly and critically. She is particularly good at depicting holiday and family celebration scenes, with, for instance, impressive descriptions of spreads of food. The book is strong at the level of language too, with a deliberately elevated diction that echoes Wharton and even Jane Austen. Rather than seeming strained or overreaching, this strategy works remarkably well.

I have vague memories of the Hollywood film version of The Age of Innocence (1993, dir. Martin Scorsese, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer), but can’t recall whether every character and plot element has a one-to-one correlation in The Innocents. I wouldn’t be surprised if the themes of moral scandal and financial ruin come directly from Wharton. Segal’s story of longing and dissatisfaction in London’s Jewish suburbia pairs brilliantly with Wharton’s elegant examinations of upper-class New York society life. The Innocents is astoundingly successful, and Segal’s is a masterful new voice.
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Reading Progress

April 25, 2012 – Shelved
June 9, 2012 – Started Reading
June 10, 2012 –
page 122
June 12, 2012 – Finished Reading
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: updated-classics
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed-bookkaholic
October 3, 2013 – Shelved as: best-of-2012

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