The Innocents by Francesca Segal

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The Innocents by Francesca Segal

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Modern adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920s novel The Age of Innocence - but best not to draw too many direct comparisons. Modern day, Jewish, North London elite in bad girl threatens to disrupt childhood romance drama while everyone around eats Jewish snacks.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780701186999

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Francesca Segal's debut novel, The Innocents is set in upper class, Jewish, North London. Adam is about to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, and is working as a lawyer in her father's business. Into this romantic idyl though comes Ellie, Rachel's wayward cousin who has been forced to flee the US following an appearance in an 'art house' movie of dubious repute and, it turns out, further scandal. Ellie is everything that Rachel is not; a model, worldly, sexy and tempting. As Adam gets drawn into wanting to 'rescue' her and look after her, his whole future with Rachel is thrown into doubt and the story becomes a will they, won't they get together narrative.

To appreciate what Segal has done here it helps, but is by no means necessary, to have a working understanding of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer prize winning 1920 novel The Age of Innocence. The Innocents is basically a modern adaptation of the same story, with Segal substituting the upper class New York society of the 1870s with upper class London Jewish society in the modern day. In some respects, finding a society where there are the cultural expectations and homogeneity of the 1870s in a modern world is clever and even if her Jewish London set do come over as a little idealised and cliché at times the transference of setting works reasonably well. The result is a pleasantly entertaining, relatively light read.

However, while steering so closely to a literary classic is brave, it does invite comparison and in this regard, not too surprisingly, Segal fares less well. Wharton's 1920s book said something profound about a lost world of innocence before World War 1 in a way that Segal's novel doesn't. In fact, in comparison Segal's book comes over as, well rather more innocent. The most serious comparative weakness is in the ending: Wharton's was deeply moving and memorable while Segal's is a little predictable and really rather downbeat. Segal's book is short listed for the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and certainly shows promise and intelligence but the Pulitzer Prize it certainly isn't.

It is, then, best to gloss over the literary comparisons however obvious they may be, and to take The Innocents for what it is. It does have some frustrating weaknesses. The characterization is pretty light and with the exception of the family matriarch, Ziva, none are particularly strongly drawn nor do they invite the reader's sympathy. I found it hard to believe that Adam would be drawn to either the dull Rachel or the bad Ellie. The depiction of upper class Jewish society as held together by food and religious events, but mostly food, is often wryly amusing but a little reductive.

Yet while all this sounds a bit damning, I really rather enjoyed the book. It's often gently amusing, rather than laugh out loud, is nicely observed at times and rattles along at a pleasing pace. Although I didn't find myself drawn to any of the protagonists, with the exception of Ziva, I did want to know what happened. I certainly warmed to Segal's writing style too - it will be fascinating to see how she develops with a plot line of her own rather than one drawn from the literary elite.

Out grateful thanks to the kind people at Chatto & Windus for sending us this book.

You might also enjoy NW by Zadie Smith, a writer who has also dabbled with adapting literary greats in the past. For more Jewish fiction, The Death of Eli Gold by David Baddiel is also recommended.

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