The Innocents opens with a quote from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and it wasn’t until after I’d read the novel and googled it that I twigged The Innocents is actually a modern day reworking of said novel. Whilst this probably says more about my horrific lack of knowledge of literary classics more than anything, there could not be a better advertisement for Wharton’s book than The Innocents, which moves the setting from 19th century New York to London, but aside from the setting, the themes, characters and decisions that are central to the novel transition effortlessly.
The plot centres around Adam Newman, a nice Jewish boy, and his upcoming marriage to nice Jewish girl Rachel Gilbert, whom he has dated for 12 years, since they were 16. Adam works as a lawyer for Rachel’s dad’s law firm, and lives in the comfortable bubble of Hampstead, where his close friends and family all live nearby. He loves Rachel dearly and is utterly content with his life arrangements, until her 22 year old cousin Ellie returns to London from New York, on the back of several scandals, one of the chief being that she got kicked out of Columbia University for appearing in a porn film. Adam is as fascinated by Ellie as he is scared by her, and as the customary pre-wedding jitters kick in he finds himself pulling away from his fiancée, and drawing closer and closer to her enigmatic cousin.
In her debut novel, Francesca Segal cannily paints a world which she is fully accustomed with. Her descriptions of Jewish north London are both lovingly and playfully rendered. Hebrew phrases are littered in conversation throughout, which, whilst somewhat confusing for the reader (although a minor background of watching Will and Grace, Sex and the City and Woody Allen movies has, I would like to think, given me a vague understanding of the mainstream Jewish sayings) add to the realism of the world Adam inhibits. That there are jaunty football jokes littered about further contributes to the quietly amusing tone of the book, and references to pop songs like Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You” make it accessible to the Bieber generation.
The best part of her writing, however, is the detail of the characters, who are completely believable, if not totally likeable. Adam’s fiancée Rachel is dubbed a “perfect north London clone”, rather pejoratively by her cousin, and she doesn’t deviate from that throughout. Rachel is undoubtedly a sweet girl and a loving wife, but she is also unremarkable. She definitely lacks that spark that Adam has lived his whole life without, and didn’t realise he was missing until Ellie came along. Ellie, I felt, was even less likeable than Rachel. I felt for her tragic past – she lost her mother in a bombing and from them on her father couldn’t care about anyone – but her way of acting out – some textbook (drugs, self-harm), some more out of the box – carrying on with several married men, one for money, and her borderline predatory behaviour around Adam, the betrothed of her cousin, seemed completely selfish to me. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily brutal to her character, but we all have our afflictions, and I wasn’t convinced that Ellie was righting any of the world’s wrongs by the way she behaved.
It was Adam, the protagonist, who I connected with the most, in particular how he felt stifled by society’s pressure on him to conform. Most of his life he lived by the book, and he’s been happy with that, until he witnesses what else is out there, outside north London. He’s a flawed guy, who makes some very dubious, selfish decisions in the book, but that’s humanity. Segal recognises than nobody is perfect, and the redemption offered for Adam, I feel, was a bittersweet one.
The last part was by far the emotive of the novel for me, and I was sobbing as I turned the closing pages. It is as the novel closes that you truly come to realise the significance of the book’s title: this is a story about loss of innocence, above anything. Adam grows up, and his inner-monologue is one of the saddest soliloquies committed to paper, particularly as he pines for his father, who passed away when he was 8, and who’s absence he never really recovered from. And for all of Adam’s infuriating dithering, the importance of family is really highlighted in the closing pages of the book. Segal does not, as would be fashionable to, denounce family ties and social norms, but instead puts attention to just how important they are, and how when the chips are down, your friends and family will always be there for you.
Francesca Segal’s novel is an emotionally rich, touching one. Despite being constrained geographically, its thematic scope is wide, but what it all boils down to is being grateful for what you have, and the importance of family. These are home truths that have been peddled so much that they seem like platitudes, but by going through Adam’s journey, you see just how true they are. I recommend it to everyone.