Cred­it: Ali­cia Savage

With The Inno­cents, first-time author Francesca Segal recre­at­ed a gem of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry canon, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Inno­cence, apply­ing 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?

FSI 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?

FSThat’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 rec­og­nized 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.