Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

It's always interesting to see what modern authors do when they use the framework of a classic and update the story. Francesca Segal has taken Edith Wharton's brilliant novel Age of Innocence, modernized it, and moved it to an insular, traditional conservative North London Jewish community, a society both very different and at the same time similar to the wealthy New York society Wharton immortalized in so many of her works. Although it shares much thematically with the original, it doesn't follow exactly, updating and changing the questions of morality, expectation, and conformity presented within its pages.

The novel opens with Adam and Rachel, having dated for twelve years, newly engaged and attending shul on the holiest of holies, Yom Kippur, when Adam discovers that Rachel's scandalous cousin, Ellie, is also in the synagogue and causing murmurings in the congregation not only because of her unexpected presence but also because of her inappropriate and intentionally provocative attire. Ellie's reappearance in this tightly knit community causes shock waves to course through both the community as a whole and also through the finally settled future of Adam and Rachel.

Anyone who knows the original Wharton story knows the bones of the plot to come and Segal stays true to the expected conflicts. The childishly sweet and patient Rachel ignores Adam's growing fascination with Ellie, content in the solidity of her expectations and their ability to overcome anything that might intrude unpleasantly on her long awaited marriage. Adam himself feels a loathing attraction to Ellie and a compulsion to defend her unconventionality and passion to those who would condemn her for her choices.  Strangely enough, that she is seen as an almost pariah in the world he's lived in his whole life only heightens his fascination and lust. Although Ellie is younger than he is, she is far more worldly than Adam is and certainly more mindful of the cost of a life outside of the stated mores of a particular community. Not only has Ellie grown up away from the strictures of this conservative enclave, living in America, but she appeared nude in an art house film (or porn flick depending on who is passing judgment on the movie), she's done drugs, and is having an affair with a married art dealer. She is portrayed very much as a bad girl unconcerned with how her actions reflect on others, especially her family. And yet she is not unaware of the reactions to the scandals of her life and she does care, very deeply in fact.

But no matter how desperately obsessed Adam becomes, he will have to decide between the security of the known, duty, and complacency versus an exciting spark, flaring passion, tortured emotions, and defying the expectations of the world that has nurtured him his whole life, folding him into its embrace especially tightly after the early, unexpected death of his father. He must decide what is most important, the momentary excitement of the unknown or the long planned for future stretching out before him. Segal's debut novel revisits the timeless themes of Wharton's work although she hasn't quite managed to transfer the tale entirely convincingly to the present given the enormous difference in societal mores now as compared to then even in a closed community like the one in which Adam and Rachel live. And she shies away from the almost crushing poignance at the end of the original. But the novel is well written and interesting with sharp insights into temptation, relinquishment, and socially prescribed denial. Adam and Ellie's attraction doesn't have the requited urgency and repressed passion of the original and Rachel is not nearly as naively innocent either, instead coming off as falsely childish. Despite these differences, as a stand alone novel rather than just an homage to Wharton, this is a very fascinating anthropological look at the strictures of the conservative North London Jewish community and what constitutes right and good behaviour and the privilege of membership within it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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