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.
Yet in myriad ways, Segal’s backdrop is — at first glance, at least — as hermetically sealed as Old New York. It’s not only that the bride-to-be’s love rival is her cousin — everybody is related, if not by blood then by marriage or work or an unfortunate episode at someone’s bar mitzvah 15 years earlier.
Just like Old New York, this is a community that has its own way of doing things, and The Innocents takes its cue from Wharton’s anthropological musings, doubling as a primer on the importance of the Friday night dinner, the symbolism of Rosh Hashanah, and the evolution of the Christmakah party.
For Adam, eyeing 30 and the rebellion he was too insecure to indulge as a teen, it’s “as if their lives were one long snaking, predetermined conga line”. But tradition in NW11 is not the tradition of 1870s New York. This is continuity shaped by a history of wrenching discontinuity, of successive generations born in different countries to their parents. Segal — daughter of the late Erich Segal, author of Love Story — is a writer of instinctive warmth who can divertingly lavish a full page on a breakfast spread, yet she never loses sight of this haunted truth.
Whereas The Age of Innocence foreshadows the end of an era, The Innocents is set in an age that reveres individualism. The era that must draw to a close here is strictly personal; the innocence lost is in no way communal, it’s Adam’s, it’s Rachel’s. Though their story is what propels Segal’s novel, this crucial distinction between the two books makes the community she depicts seem all the more rare, all the more precious. As she notes, “There was no life event — marriage, birth, parenthood or loss — through which one need ever walk alone. Twenty-five people were always poised to help. The other side of interference was support.” In the end, it is to be treasured.