‘The Innocents’ by Francesca Segal

The InnocentsI re-read ‘The Age of Innocence’ a couple of months ago and so it was quite fresh in my mind when I started reading this contemporary interpretation. At first I was concerned that the narrative might be a little too formulaic—it is clearly a devoted homage to the original; the story follows the same arc and each event has been pretty directly translated, with just one notable exception. And yet, despite this, ‘The Innocents’ felt like its own story.

New York high-society of the 1870’s somehow converts seamlessly to a present-day North-London Jewish community; a difficult task and testament to the skill and sensitivity of the author. Both societies have a close-knit community and strong family values in common, but Francesca Segal is slightly kinder to her community in ‘The Innocents’ than Edith Wharton was to hers. She describes it with affectionate warmth—the whispers about the scandalous Ellie are merely gossip, not censorious judgment. Perhaps this is the hardest element to translate to a contemporary setting—today we have the liberty of second chances, the opportunity to remake ourselves. Ellen Olenska’s reputation was irredeemable. In contrast Adam’s contemplation of betrayal seems somehow more despicable than Newland Archer’s. Perhaps we are more cynical about love these days—literature’s grand passions have been reduced to your garden-variety lust.

The characters are very well-crafted though, their feelings are authentically conveyed. Adam’s recurring grief at the loss of his own father and the role that Rachel’s father plays in his life is a poignant addition. It is an ambitious project—to take on the timeless genius of Edith Wharton’s original—but ‘The Innocents’ does add a worthy alternate dimension to a classic story.

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