The age of Jewish guilt
In a seamless updating of a classic Edith Wharton novel, first-time novelist Francesca Segal offers a teasing portrait of privileged, contemporary London Jews.
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
Voice/Hyperion, 288 pages, $26 or $15 in paperback
Early 1870s, New York. Newland Archer is late for the opera at the Old Academy. Taking his seat in the darkened club box, his eyes linger approvingly over May Welland, his new fiancee, dressed in white and sitting beside her mother and grandmother. There’s a small commotion as a woman walks in wearing “unusual dress,” and seats herself with the Wellands, leaving no doubt as to who she is: Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin − newly arrived from Europe.
Fast forward more than a century. On the eve of Yom Kippur, 28-year-old Adam Newman attends his London synagogue and basks in the sight of his longtime girlfriend, and newly minted fiancee, Rachel Gilbert. Flanked by her mother and grandmother and lit by the red flames of a candelabra, Rachel cuts a saintly figure. But Adam is quickly jolted from his reverie. “Rachel’s cousin’s here,” a friend tells him, as his eyes take in this surprising presence − Ellie Schneider, “wearing a tuxedo jacket with nothing beneath it and black trousers − trousers!”
The latter is the deja-vu-inducing backdrop for “The Innocents,” a present-day reworking of Edith Wharton’s classic “The Age of Innocence,” and a smart, enjoyable novel by Francesca Segal. “The Innocents” transfers the insular high society of Gilded-Age Manhattan to the tight-knit Jewish community of Northwest London in the wake of the financial crisis. Differently put, it’s Wharton in the age of iPhone. Ostentatious carriage rides are replaced with bikini Facebook pictures, effusive letters are traded in for pithy text messages (“Missing u like crazy”) and, instead of the mysterious, older Olenska − whose flaws render her by far the most complex, and ultimately most compelling, character in the Wharton original − we get Ellie, a 22-year-old model. Sadly, it’s in this latter substitution that Segal’s otherwise worthy and well-crafted endeavor falls remarkably short.
Like Ellen Olenska, Ellie Schneider is a self-prescribed exile whose controversial return to the community from which she’d sprung threatens to undo its very foundations. But the difference − and it’s a big one − is that whereas Olenska is presented to the reader as a woman who, nearing 30, is past her prime (“thin, worn, a little older-looking than her age”) and Newland’s love for her attests to his hidden depths, Ellie is, well, a 22-year-old model. Ellie’s “limbs of satin,” “champagne blond hair,” “high cheekbones” and “high, pointed breasts” are plastered on fashion spreads from Paris to New York. That Adam quickly becomes infatuated with her, therefore, does not make him contrarian or intriguing; it makes him rather puerile. Segal does attempt to shroud Ellie in conflict and ambiguity: Despite her “Disney wide” eyes, we’re told, in reality Ellie is somewhat “gaunt” and “pale” and looks as though she “slept many nights in old makeup.” We’re also made to believe that, having read all of Dickens, Ellie is now embarking on Tolstoy − in between shots for the latest Balmain campaign. And that she once starred half naked in an art house film, for which she got the boot from Columbia University (where she’d studied − what else? − creative writing). What makes it even harder to pull for this wonky mannequin is her tendency to emit such patronizing nonsense as “I sometimes think I’d have been so damn happy working on an assembly line,” or platitudes cloaked in earnest emotion (“God, I value love”).
Luckily, Adam’s fevered longings for Ellie (not to mention the all-too-annoying Rachel, with her constant fussing over cupcakes, dinner, her weight, and her upcoming nuptials) have us rooting for the two of them after all. As Jonathan Franzen observed in The New Yorker while musing on Wharton’s legacy on the occasion of her 150th birthday: “One of the greatest perplexities of fiction − and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form − is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life.” He explained: “The alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of ‘bad’ people into sympathy is desire.”
Adam’s forbidden desire for Ellie vindicates him − and, ultimately, vindicates the novel, too. That’s good news, because “The Innocents,” a debut for Segal, a former journalist for The Observer, is written from the highly favorable vantage point of both insider-y intimacy and critical remove. In fact, Segal’s translation of late-19th-century New York into contemporary London is so seamless that I began to wonder whether Lily Bart, perhaps the most famous of Wharton’s strong-minded heroines, of “House of Mirth,” should not be awarded a similar Hebraized resurrection (Lily Bartovich?).
It’s clear from the beginning of the novel that Segal inhabits this wealthy Jewish milieu well, offering us such pleasurable scenes as a busy hotel dining room in Eilat − with its breakfast buffet offering of “slickly purple-brown prunes,” dry cucumbers and a fresh crop of hungover tourists − and a game centered around the social pages of the Jewish Chronicle:
“Sadie Levine,” he read.
Olivia looked unimpressed. “Dispatched, clearly.”
“Correct. That was a warm-up. Lisle Kupermann.”
“Dispatched,” said Olivia and Adam together. Jaffa tutted in ostentatious disapproval and began to clear the plates, noisily.
“Hatched, really? Lisle? Oh, that’s terribly old-fashioned these days, poor thing,” said Michelle, standing up to help Jaffa.
“You’re giving us nothing to work with,” Leslie Pearl complained. “Matched.”
“Well done. Okay. Coco Winter Freedman. Too easy,” he added, over the collective shout of “Hatched.”
Occasionally, and perhaps owing to the fact that the end is more or less known to anyone who’s read “The Age of Innocence,” the novel trudges along predictably. Boring parties are thrown, too many cigarettes are smoked (almost always by our vixen), and unexpected guests expectedly announce themselves. Sentences at times fall flat (“’God, you are really conventional,’ she said, but with tenderness”), or are simply clunky (as when, in a single page, we get “scars, fine as blades,” “the fine scars,” and “fine white scars”). Ever the stylist, Wharton would have no doubt scowled at these.
Nevertheless, what “The Innocents” gets very right is Wharton’s fascination with the “dignity of duty,” as personified in Adam and his tormenting dilemma − between marrying safe, predictable Rachel or taking off with her scandal-prone cousin. Readers may still be forgiven for wondering why a curious young man who grew up in a loving environment should feel as conflicted as Adam does about wishing to venture out beyond the bounds of the Northern Line and posh Temple Fortune. After all, he has money, he’s not particularly religious, and he clearly feels trapped in a loveless relationship. His community’s castigation would surely sting, but not as much as it did for Newland − not in an era where even the latest transgressions of a flame-haired British prince are met with resignation.
But, perhaps in anticipation of such criticism, Segal deftly lays in the punch − with some good old Jewish guilt, showing us that the mores of Adam’s community, though overbearing, can also be strangely comforting. “There was no life event through which one need ever walk alone.
Twenty-five people were always poised to help.” She sums up the point nicely: “The other side of interference was support.”
Ruth Margalit, a frequent contributor to Books, is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.