Francesca Segal: A writer of instinctive warmth (Donna Svennik)
Francesca Segal's sonorous debut novel, The Innocents, is a mature love story that meditates on community and the ties that bind. But enfolded within its pages is a love letter of another kind, a fan-fiction-like tribute to Edith Wharton. For as its title intimates, it is nothing less than a contemporary recasting of that adroit classic, The Age of Innocence.
London becomes the updated setting — north-west London, to be precise, the very heart of the Anglo-Jewish community. There, Ellie Schneider takes on the role Wharton created for Ellen Olenska, that beautiful, scandalous, utterly unrepentant prodigal daughter whose upright cousin, May Welland, is betrothed to the equally proper-seeming Newland Archer.
In Segal's rendering, the "perfect" cousin is Rachel Gilbert, who is finally poised to unite beneath the chuppah with doting school sweetheart Adam Newman. While Rachel is sweetly zaftig, Ellie wafts through the novel in filmy T-shirts, shod in wedges with heels made from driftwood. She doesn't just look like a model, she is a model, yet beyond her bright green "Disney wide" eyes lurks darkness. Her thighs are scarred by self-harm, and she has just been kicked off her Columbia graduate studies programme for starring in a porn film.
There's plenty more scandal to come, including the collapse of a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme and an acrimonious divorce featuring a sententious art dealer and a string of young blondes, but it is the crisis in Adam's heart that provides the real drama. Ellie turns his head and suddenly Rachel, the girl whose steadiness he so prized, seems fully the sheltered, incurious creation of a community whose values he has also begun to question.
Though the plot hews closely to its inspiration, for the Wharton devotee, part of The Innocents' pleasure will lie in tracking its divergences and convergences. Of course, there's an altogether tarter delight to be had here, imagining what Wharton, that notorious anti-Semite, would have made of an opening scene that switches a night at the opera for the Kol Nidre service at synagogue.