Francesca Segal’s entertaining and enjoyable The Innocents is inspired by and implicitly references Edith Wharton’s masterpiece The Age of Innocence. In The Innocents, Segal shifts Wharton’s original setting from Old Money New York to New Money London; moves the tight social group to reflect an affluent Jewish community; and transforms the major players of Wharton’s novel–Newland, May, and Ellen–into Adam, Rachel, and Ellie.
When the novel begins, Adam has just gotten engaged to his perfect and innocent long-term girlfriend, Rachel, who also happens to be the daughter of his boss. Ellie, Rachel’s impossibly beautiful cousin, appears just in time for Adam to question that engagement. Ellie and Rachel call to different traits in Adam’s character. They seem to offer him two opposing ways to live, and any choice he makes will hurt someone deeply; by the time Ellie arrives, Adam is fully enmeshed in Rachel’s world. By deciding whom to love, he decides who he wants to be–or is it the other way around?
Segal paints a detailed, convincing picture of what it is like to live with these characters in this London, in an entirely Jewish community that makes its own complete, small world. Rachel’s parents Lawrence and Jaffa, her and Ellie’s grandmother Ziva (a wonderfully drawn character), Adam’s mother and sister, and their extended circle of friends have distinct, vibrant voices. Jewish holidays and traditions frame the story’s sequence of events, the religious topics of forgiveness, atonement, loss, and sin bleeding through into the characters’ struggles with those same ideas.
The world which the characters inhabit in The Innocents is described in narrow terms, perhaps purposely so; for readers, like Adam, it becomes difficult to leave the boundaries of that world or recognize what scope, danger, and freedom may be found beyond it. Outsiders like Ellie, who has lived for many years in the United States, struggle to find their footing; the people in this society are so close-knit that even long-lost relatives must prove their worth in order to re-enter family circles. And, if the boundaries are too set, will the struggle be worthwhile? The events, the actions, and the characters’ thoughts revealed in The Innocents seem inevitable; for these characters, it’s hard to imagine things turning out any other way. And for characters like Adam, that inevitability is both a blessing and a curse.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Hyperion. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.