Deceit and betrayal abound in this tale by first-time novelist Francesca Segal. Drawing upon Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence, Segal spins a tale of upper-middle class London Jews behaving badly.
Twenty-eight year old Adam Newman is preparing to marry Rachel Gilbert, who has played loyal girlfriend to his faithful breadwinner ever since they met on a teen tour to Israel twelve years ago. The two are flush with excitement and good wishes on their new engagement when Rachel’s orphaned cousin, Ellie Schneider, returns to Temple Fortune, their close-knit suburban London community. Tongues wag as Ellie, a statuesque blond wild child booted from her writing program at Columbia University for starring in an adult film, is folded back into the Gilberts’ social circuit.
But it’s Adam’s tongue that matters most, as he soon finds he cannot control the love he begins to feel for Rachel’s cousin, a love that threatens to unravel his engagement and his coveted status in the Gilbert family.
The Innocents bobs and weaves as Adam tries to remain in love with Rachel, ultimately winding up in a surprising place. It’s an exciting journey filled with villains and victims, but one that readers should be glad to watch from a distance.
Twitter Book ClubRead a transcript from the July 16, 2012 Twitter Book Club with Francesca Segal
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First-time author Francesca Segal recreated one of the twentieth century canon’s gems, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, to apply the same themes of society, class, love, and family to modern London. Lawyer Adam Newman has always played by the rules and is preparing to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Gilbert, when her beautiful, reckless cousin, Ellie Schneider, arrives from America. Adam must choose between following the path carved for him or following his heart.Jaclyn Trop: Adam is confronted with a choice throughout the novel, but it seems as though the decision is ultimately made for him. What message are you imparting about marriage, relationships, and society?
Fransesca Segal: I would hate to be too prescriptive about interpretation – and I’ve been fascinated by the reactions I’ve had so far. Most readers feel very strongly about Adam’s choice, but they certainly don’t all agree with one another.
I don’t think I set out to impart a message, so much as to ask certain questions. What constitutes a good marriage? And a good life? Romantic lore suggests that one chooses a life partner as an individual, in a vacuum – that one person alone is the source of all happiness, regardless of context or circumstance. At the other end is absolute pragmatism, but between those two is a vast and complex landscape. One doesn’t, in reality, live in a vacuum, and everyone brings a constellation of factors into a marriage - their family, their culture; their interests, their financial circumstances, their ambitions, and it seems strange to suggest that none of those things contributes to one’s overall compatibility and happiness. Ellie versus Rachel, alone, in isolation? That is an altered playing field. But the lives that each woman offers – those are very different.
JT: Ellie tells Adam, ‘I swear, I knew you, I saw who you were, that very first time I met you’ when she was a child. It is clear why Adam is intrigued by Ellie, the melancholy model, but what attracts Ellie to Adam?
FS: I suspect it is a combination of factors, including, initially, an envy of anything that Rachel has. Ellie’s perception is that Rachel has everything and her life is perfect, and then into it comes another man to protect and take care of her. Initially I think that might contribute. And then they get to know one another, and both have their preconceptions of the other challenged.
JT: Who is the victim of the story? Does it change throughout?
FS: That’s such a fascinating question, as I’d never considered the story as having a victim. I suspect you can make a case for each of Rachel, Adam, and Ellie in turn, at various points of the narrative. I don’t think anyone gets out undamaged, but whether each ultimately ends up where they ought to be is subjective.
JT: Your novel is inspired by Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence. Even your hero’s name, Adam Newman, is a loose inversion of Wharton’s Newland Archer. What is the significance of your title, The Innocents, and why did you choose to adapt Wharton’s book to modern Jewish London?
FS: I was briefly anxious about the title ‘The Innocents’ because it so clearly referred back to the Wharton novel, but over time it has really grown on me, as I think it describes beautifully the world that the novel depicts, both earnestly and with a twist of irony.
I chose to adapt the Wharton novel to contemporary north-west London because the central themes and ideas seemed so immediate and relevant. Wharton was enormously prescient about a number of things in that novel – reading about Julius Beaufort’s scams, for example, resembles the Madoff scandal in eerily accurate detail. I recognised the social climate of her novel – conformity versus freedom; independence at a cost of support and security. My message is slightly different from hers, however.
JT: Your father, Erich Segal, was an accomplished novelist and screenwriter. What inspires you to write, and what do you find to be the biggest challenge?
FS: I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything but write. My father was an enormous source of inspiration, both for the example that he set and for the passionate love of reading that he instilled in our whole family. He was a Classics professor, and those Romans knew a good narrative. I grew up in a household in which stories really mattered.
1. Segal’s debut novel is a re-telling of the classic novel The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie adaptation of The Age of Innocence, discuss the specific ways in which The Innocents parallels Wharton’s novel, and then consider the important ways in which it departs from her novel. Does knowledge of this parallel add to your understanding of Segal’s novel, or does it complicate it?
2. Apart from Adam’s initial physical attraction to Ellie, what in the beginning of the novel foreshadowed that Adam and Rachel were not, perhaps, as ideally suited to one another as he’d thought for the past 12 years?
3. How did the back-story about Jackie’s death help you to sympathize with Ellie? What aspects of her personality seem most likely a result of her mother’s early death and her father’s subsequent emotional distance?
4. Discuss Ziva’s relationship with Ellie and consider how the two women are similar in terms of being survivors. How much do you think this accounted for their mutual affection for one another? Could any of the others – Jaffa, Rachel, Adam – have truly understood Ziva? Why or why not?
5. Compare Ellie’s character with that of Rachel’s, and discuss Adam’s inability to commit wholly to just one of them for most of the novel. Between the two women, whom did you prefer? With whom did you sympathize the most? Do you think Adam made the right choice, in the end?
6. Compare and contrast the novel’s “Ethan Goodman” financial scandal with recent events in the financial sector of our own culture – such as the Bernie Madoff scandal. Discuss how the ordeal operates as a catalyst and as a complication of the plot within the novel. Do you think it can also work as a symbol with any of Segal’s themes in the book? Why or why not?
7. How well does Segal portray the social, psychological, religious, and emotional lives of the Jewish community in North London? Do you feel that she conveys a reasonable and realistic portrait of this large and diverse group of people? What were her greatest strengths in her depiction, as well as her weaknesses?
8. Similarly, how did characters like Ziva Schneider help you to understand the Israeli immigrant experience? In particular, what did the novel help to show about the Jewish survivors of World War II, and their difficulties with nationality and assimilation into post-World War II European society?
9. Is Rachel’s character a passive one? Would you call her passive aggressive? Why or why not? By the end of the novel, in what significant ways has her character changed?
10. Discuss how Segal incorporates the subject of death into her novel – is her handling of the subject matter sensitive? Objective? Realistic? Consider the many moments in the novel where death is encountered or referenced and discuss Segal’s success when it comes to writing about the end of life and its impact on those who remain.
11. Similarly, discuss Segal’s choice of setting for this adaptation of Wharton’s novel. In what important ways does the Jewish community of North London in the early 2000’s parallel late 19th century New York? Discuss the key characteristics that these communities share, and then discuss their important differences.
12. Discuss the significance of Segal’s title to the characters in her book. Not only does the title recall Wharton’s novel, but it reflects a characteristic of the group of people she’s writing about, as well as specific characters. Discuss the ways in which The Innocents is both a sincere title and an ironic one.