In Francesca Sega’s exceptional debut novel, The Innocents, it seems as though everyone would like to have the last laugh, Segal included. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Segal transposes 19th-century New York customs and conventions onto 21st-century northwest London’s Jewish elite. It is a society wherein convention rules and there is little room for free will, lest you suggest that you know better than the group at large.
Adam is a twenty-eight year old lawyer who is engaged to his high school sweetheart Rachel. They have known since they were teenagers, barring a short break-up, that they were meant to be together, and their parents and relatives did everything in their power to encourage this outcome. They were in essence groomed to be wed and conditioned to expect this union.
This is fine and well and sounds quite a bit like a lot of relationships I know, but all is not actually well. Adam, only one week engaged, already has itchy feelings of confinement and restraint. His future looks like a series of well prescribed appointments and landmark occasions that leave little room for spontaneity or excitement. While he attempts to convince himself that that’s all right, life is not meant to be a roller coaster of emotions and unpredictabilities, his heart is not in it. Enter: Ellie.
Fiery cousin Ellie, with her porno film credits and burgeoning modeling career. Her can-do and step-out-of-my-way attitude are initially an assault on Adam’s conservative sensibilities, but he soon admires her for her charisma and self-confidence. Adam is torn between making what he knows is the sensible, obvious choice and something a little more reckless and potentially fulfilling.
What is striking here (because stories of the struggle between free will and group think are hardly new) is that Segal seems to point out a large number of similarities between the culture that she designed and that of Edith Wharton’s. One can only assume that this is much to Wharton’s chagrin given her well-known antisemitism. The crux of Segal’s novel rests then on the idea that despite a wild disparity among customs and expectations throughout our world, we are all essentially bound by a similar battle to negotiate societal norms and independent thought. It’s quite a unifying them for a novel that was born out of a reaction to unfair discrimination.
I haven’t finished it yet so can’t give a full review but so far I’m really liking the novel. Segal’s writing has the elegance and security of Victorian conventions but she is definitely playing to a modern crowd. She is witty and subtle in her charm. I’m looking forward to finding out what (or really who) Adam chooses!