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A solid debut of middle-class Jewish London
on June 6, 2012
This is an enjoyable and relatively conventional suburban drama of a close-knit Jewish community in NW London. Likewise, I applaud this debut author's sublime irony and chutzpah in her choice to revitalize but change the original version of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, a novel written by the celebrated, anti-Semitic author, Edith Wharton, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921! (Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James were all privileged people of their times) Segal gets the last laugh by writing this tidy, classy novel about manners and family, and security versus passionate spontaneity. THE INNOCENTS takes place in contemporary times.
Twenty-eight-year-olds Adam Newman (cf. Newland Archer in AOI) and Rachel Gilbert (May Welland) have been together for a dozen years, engaged to be married, and comfortable and secure in their tight knot of overlapping and extended family and friends. Rachel has never been with any other man but Adam, and Adam's experience is limited (by today's standards). He is smug in his knowledge of Adam and Rachel, Rachel and Adam. Although his father died when he was very young, leaving an unresolved grief in his heart, Rachel's father, Lawrence, has embraced him like a son, even hired him to work as an attorney in his firm. They are as close as in-laws could be. The marriage in a year will seal the deal, and bring the families even closer.
"There was no life event--marriage, birth, parenthood, or loss--through which one need ever walk alone. Twenty-five people were always poised to help. The other side of interference was support."
In walks the prodigal cousin, returned from New York, Ellie Schneider (Ellen Olenska in AOI), a twenty-two-year old statuesque, bottle-blonde beauty. She was kicked out of the MFA creative writing program at Columbia for making a skin flick that surfaced, and is mantled with controversy for her ongoing affair with a famous married art dealer in NY, a scandal that is about to hit the media, and started when she was only sixteen. She dresses provocatively, which doesn't go down well with the relatives at synagogue, especially on a High Holy Day such as Yom Kippur, where this novel opens.
Adam is transfixed and ignited by the sight of her even as he is repelled and intimidated by her cavalier independence from the strictures and reproaches of their insular community. He cannily aspires to accidentally on purpose run into Ellie, bringing himself closer and closer into dangerous territory, like in AGE OF INNOCENCE. They develop a muted, cryptic, but inwardly tender kinship, circling around each other, chastely, also similar in spirit to Wharton's book. Meanwhile, Rachel's wedding plans are irritating him, because he wants to be married "quickly" and without fanfare, to be wed and put stray longings to rest.
Segal paints a vivid portrait of this clannish society's mores, although most of the secondary characters are set pieces to further the story. There's Ziva, the 88-year-old grandmother, (Rachel's), an erudite immigrant who survived the Holocaust; Adam's mother, still a grieving widow after all these years, and other people that serve as color and background or to advance the plot.
The middle section moves gradually, perhaps stiffly at times, and includes a few hard-to-swallow events. For example, Lawrence put Adam on as Ellie's private attorney, to help clean up her scandals, if possible, and do damage control to her public persona. No matter how much Lawrence trusts Adam, I can't imagine any man placing his almost son-in-law in the position of private confidante to the provocative Ellie. Lawrence is quite socially conservative and protective of his own family. Even if he can trust Adam, why throw him to the lions? There's support and then there's just not thinking. In the author's defense, Archer helped Ellie in AOI, but, here, it feels inorganic.
You don't have to be Jewish to like this theme-driven novel. The characters, actually, are universal, as are the conflicts that this book explores, mainly certainty in traditional values versus uncertainty in following your passion, the fallout of lingering grief, and the impact that your decisions have on others. Segal also included a subplot that reflects the economic casualties of our times, but if felt a bit forced, a plot-driven convenience.
This is a solid, four-star first novel, and it doesn't distract by being an updated version of a classic. Rather, the presence of the older novel serves to illuminate that some things, at its heart, haven't changed, even if the décor is renovated and a century has passed. Segal has admirable control of her narrative, and her prose is clean and smooth. I look forward to her next novel.