Adam Newman belongs to a strong and vibrant community of Jewish Londoners. His fiancée, Rachel Gilbert, and her large family have considered him one of their own for years. And as a junior member of his future father-in-law’s law firm, he’s entwined himself inextricably with the people among whom he has grown up. But it isn’t until one of their own, the enigmatic and atypical Ellie Schneider, returns to London from New York with the wake of a scandal at her heels, that Adam realizes just how inextricable his ties to the community really are.
At first put off by Ellie’s worldliness, Adam gradually comes to see Ellie, Rachel’s cousin and polar opposite, as a product of her past and her difficult present. He also comes to see her as a woman fully aware of her actions and their implications, but without regret – something that Adam finds both mystifying and compelling. His conversations with his fiancée’s cousin reveal her to be a woman better educated, more self-aware, and more complex than he ever realized. He also realizes that he’s drawn to her intensely, and that perhaps his future life with Rachel is not the future that he wants, after all.
A modern-day recasting of Edith Wharton’s seminal novel The Age of Innocence, Francesca Segal’s The Innocents explores our intense and personal connections to family and community; the simultaneous dangers and protections of existence within such a community; and the seductive powers of experience beyond our own. Segal’s rich and evocative depiction of a contemporary London community reveals its strong parallels to late 19th century New York, while her protagonist, Adam Newman, diverts from Wharton’s characters in important and enlightening ways.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
Also, 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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
A Conversation with Francesca Segal
While Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel provided you with a plot, what difficulties or challenges did you encounter when attempting to reimagine this story? What led you to retell this story in a new time and place?
I’d read The House of Mirth when I was about twelve and barely remembered it. But whenever I’m trying to get under the skin of a place I read its writers – I discovered Rushdie, who’s now one of my favorite writers, on a press trip to India – and a few years ago when I was living in New York I went back to James and to Wharton. And I just fell in love. I think The Age of Innocence was the sixth or seventh of hers I read in succession and so by the time I reached it I was familiar with some of her central preoccupations – the opposition of the individual and the group; the vulnerability of women in all social strata; the disparity between the declared motivations and the deeper currents that stir human society, whether it was her own, upper class world satirized so exquisitely in a novel like The House of Mirth and The Reef, or an entirely different milieu in tales like Summer or Ethan Frome.
I would never have chosen to start, spontaneously, with a classic on which to base a novel of my own – the self-consciousness and fear of comparison would have held me back. But I didn’t really have a choice, in the end. It just happened, almost from the moment I started reading The Age of Innocence; a portrait of a world entirely removed from my own era or experience that nonetheless felt instantly, immediately familiar, with all the support systems and pressures and judgments and long-interwoven lives. It was, I think, the one and only moment when a large cartoon lightbulb pinged on above my head. I read that glorious opening scene at the new opera house, in which all of Old New York high society is assembled to hear Faust. And it just seemed immediately obvious – it was just like going to synagogue on the High Holidays. After that, I simply had to do it. I had always known that I had certain ideas about life in a small, suburban community that I wanted to explore, and suddenly I had the perfect vehicle for them.
The tone at the end of your novel is less bleak and more optimistic than that of Age of Innocence. What do you feel are the most important differences between Wharton’s novel and your own?
I had a slightly different message from Wharton. The Age of Innocence is already less scathing and condemnatory than The House of Mirth written fifteen years before. But still – it’s pretty damning. I wasn’t willing to condemn North West London in quite the same way, nor did I believe it fair to suggest that the fulfillment of Adam’s life would be that ‘his days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask’. Newland Archer has a loveless, emotionally sterile marriage with May Welland, and his only consolations are society and status. And even the value of these is subtly undermined by the liberations of the next generation – Newland’s son Dallas is in love with Julius Beaufort’s daughter Fanny and therefore is doing precisely what society long before had believed would mark the apocalypse – ‘marrying Beaufort’s bastards’. But it’s not the apocalypse – it no longer matters. They’re marrying, unimpeded, for love. Newland and Ellen were thirty years too early for their love affair. And it is explicitly stated that they are the grand loves of each other’s lives. In that way, my novel is very different. I didn’t want it to be clear-cut.
I would never tell a reader whether I believe Adam’s decision was right or wrong in terms of their future together beyond the book – I’d love to know what conclusions people draw by themselves, actually. But yes, in either case, my message is far less categorical and more optimistic than Wharton’s.