Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Innocents by Francesca Segal

Newly engaged and unthinkingly self-satisfied, twenty-eight-year-old Adam Newman is the prize catch of Temple Fortune, a small, tight-knit Jewish suburb of London. He has been dating Rachel Gilbert since they were both sixteen and now, to the relief and happiness of the entire Gilbert family, they are finally to marry. To Adam, Rachel embodies the highest values of Temple Fortune; she is innocent, conventional, and entirely secure in her community—a place in which everyone still knows the whereabouts of their nursery school classmates. Marrying Rachel will cement Adam’s role in a warm, inclusive family he loves.
But as the vast machinery of the wedding gathers momentum, Adam feels the first faint touches of claustrophobia, and when Rachel’s younger cousin Ellie Schneider moves home from New York, she unsettles Adam more than he’d care to admit. Ellie—beautiful, vulnerable, and fiercely independent—offers a liberation that he hadn’t known existed: a freedom from the loving interference and frustrating parochialism of North West London. Adam finds himself questioning everything, suddenly torn between security and exhilaration, tradition and independence. What might he be missing by staying close to home?

It’s a tricky task to retell a well known and well loved story. It’s rarely a successful undertaking, and this book, unfortunately, is not an exception.

This is a retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a wonderfully complex book woven around the upper crust of Victorian New York society. In this version, the plot takes place in London, in a wealthy Jewish community. The main issue is that so much of the nuances in the original are completely lost in this version. Everything is thrown in the reader’s face, making us half expect to see the author winking down at us at how clever she’s being. The worst thing is that the writing is very good. There is a beauty to it which would have made for a great novel, if it’d been any other novel. It’s impossible to not compare the two books, Wharton’s masterpiece and this cheap imitation.

None of the characters, not even Adam (Newland), are fully fledged. Ellen, in particular is a weak caricature of who she is supposed to be, making her seem pitiful rather than interesting and complicated. Wharton’s protagonist, Newland, is a complex man, flawed yet real while this version, Adam, just comes off as borderline psychotic, changing moods and behaviors without real cause, just following the script a previous author laid out for him.

This is not one I’d recommend. I do look forward to reading more by this author, because the writing style is lovely, but hopefully next time it’ll be an original work all her own.


Ivana said...

Great review. I'm a huge fan of Wharton, and I think I wouldn't like this one either.

Anne said...

Glad I read your review, I love Wharton and probably would have picked this one up. After reading your review I do not think I would enjoy it.