Francesca Segal’s The Innocents: A New Spin on the Classic The Age of Innocence
I am always wary of modern retellings of classics. They are labeled as such for a reason -- their themes are timeless, resonating across space and place. I was skeptical, then, picking up Francesca Segal's The Innocents, which bills itself as a retelling of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, set in a modern-day, conservative Jewish community in London. What I found was a book superficially like The Age of Innocence, in terms of plot, but with a host of warm, rich, and vibrant characters, and a beautifully detailed writing style that was a pleasure to read, both as a debut novel and as a classic's retelling.
Segal's characters and plot follow Wharton's original quite faithfully, with the protagonist, Adam Newman, set to marry his innocent sweetheart Rachel Gilbert -- a good Jewish girl. Trouble arrives in the form of Rachel's scandalous cousin, Ellie Schneider, who arrives from New York and is decidedly not a good Jewish girl, having been kicked out of Columbia for a nude film and arriving to synagogue with nothing underneath her tuxedo jacket. If you've read The Age of Innocence, you'll recognize Newland Archer, May Welland, and Countess Ellen in this lineup. Also familiar is Rachel and Ellie's grandmother, Ziva, standing in for Mrs. Manson Mingott, the matriarch of the Welland clan in The Age of Innocence.
The plot continues to, on the surface, resemble Wharton's novel: Adam, initially happy about his engagement, begins to feel stifled under the conservative Jewish community until the introduction of worldly Ellie. The two fall in love but attempt to suppress their feelings. In the end, however, Adam must decide whether to stay with Rachel when she announces her pregnancy.
"Well, what's all that different, except for the societal setting?" you may be thinking. But, of course, society is not just a place in these novels -- it's a character. And place is where The Innocents comes entirely into its own. You see, this tight-knit Jewish community in London is similarly conservative to Wharton's New York society, and similarly insular. But the motivations behind Segal's community are much more poignant and relatable than those of Wharton's. Ziva is not an aristocratic matriarch -- she's a Holocaust survivor who flouts the rules because she sees their triviality. The Temple Fortune community is insular because of the horrors that are still fresh in their collective memory. They abhor change because they so treasure stability, newly found after centuries of upheaval.
The most marked difference between Wharton's society and Segal's is the true warmth in the characters, whose actions are ultimately motivated by love for each other, family, and their community. The love that infuses The Innocents humanizes Segal's characters and gives a new depth to an old classic, making for a striking novel that draws inspiration from The Age of Innocence, but becomes so much more.