‘The Innocents’ by Francesca Segal

My lousy review of this book is not because I dislike re-writes of classics. It’s because it failed to capture me on any level.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal is a rework of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I read The Age of Innocence many years ago, so my criticisms of this new take on Wharton’s classic are not as a result of comparing the two. In The Innocents, we meet newly engaged and self-satisfied Adam Newman, the prize catch of a small, tight-knit Jewish suburb of London. His fiancée is Rachel Gilbert – innocent, conventional and entirely secure in her community –

“She’d had such certainty, a placid conviction in the essential goodness of the world and what it promised her. To Adam, raised by a mother who prepared with steely determination for the worst to happen immediately if not sooner, Rachel’s unwavering, no-nonsense optimism had been an elixir. He hadn’t known that he was allowed to expect a calm, happy life until Rachel had shown him that she anticipated nothing else.”

As the wedding planning gathers momentum and Rachel’s stunningly beautiful cousin, Ellie, arrives from New York, Adam gets a case of pre-wedding jitters and starts to doubt his role as the ‘good son’.

Having read the blurb, you only need one guess to know where the Adam/ Rachel/ Ellie storyline is headed. The ‘relationship’ between Adam and Ellie builds too quickly to be convincing. There’s no sexual tension crackling off the page, no stolen glances, no apparent history. In fact, the descriptions of the ‘relationship’ are so tepid, I almost stopped reading. Snippets appear, plopped in the middle of the text with no build up, no sense of anticipation and no satisfactory conclusion –

“Adam looked away from her. It was one of those moments, he knew, in which he teetered on the edge of something vast and incalculable. On one side rationality, security and honour. On the other terror, oblivion and possibility. He felt her nearness as if she were touching him.”

and

“She said nothing and he continued, ‘You – you showed me just this tantalising glimpse of how it could be and at the same time you expect me to keep everything from before exactly the same, everything I thought I wanted before I even knew that life could be any other way. I didn’t know, don’t you see that? I thought I wanted it but that was because I didn’t know there was anything else. You said I chose, but it wasn’t a real choice. She was all I knew.”

Oh please! If there were ‘tantalising glimpses’, I wish they’d been shared with the reader. Are we supposed to feel sorry for Adam, the dutiful son swept up in wedding planning and dominated by the clichéd Jewish mothers? Had the affair with Ellie not actually eventuated, you would be safe thinking the whole thing was a figment of Adam’s pathetic imagination.

I was hoping for some rich, colourful descriptions of Jewish tradition and the subtleties of the social hierarchies. Alas, The Innocents didn’t even provide that, save for this rather funny throwaway line –

“”Friday night dinner’ is one of the most evocative phrases in the vocabulary of any Jew – up there in significance with ‘my son the doctor’ and ‘my daughter’s wedding’.”

I wanted to pair this book with something immensely satisfying (to make up for what I was reading). There was mention made of “…plump Israeli dates filled with soft, mint-green pistachio nougat…” – they sound amazing! Alas, my search for a recipe didn’t turn up anything that matched what I imagine a pistachio nougat stuffed date would look like. Instead, I looked to the Honey Cake, also mentioned and perhaps equally rich and delicious.

1/5 Ultimately, so disappointing.

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6 responses

  1. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. This was interesting to read, as you know I loved this book!
    I actually agree with you about the sexual tension between Adam and Ellie not being amazing, but then I don’t think it was about Ellie – she was just a convenient excuse for Adam to try to get away from his life. It would never have lasted with Ellie.

  3. I think my main problem with this book was that neither of the relationships looked that believable, in Adam and Ellie’s case the build-up was indeed lacking, and in Adam and Rachel’s case I think that okay, the book ended, but I don’t think those two are going to have happily ever after, because there seemed to be so much dissatisfaction and doubt and nagging inside of Adam. Then again I know near nothing about the Jewish community.. and maybe I’m overall too cynical 🙂

    • Agree – have you read The Age of Innocence? The relationships in that felt believable although the different time period perhaps gave them more context. Given that this book has been nominated for the Women’s Prize I’m thinking I somehow missed something! 🙂

      • I haven’t read “The Age of Innocence” yet, but it’s in my classics club reading list, so I’ll definitely get to that. Although traditionally one would probably have read those books in the other order, I find myself curious to read the older classic after having read this one. And who knows, one might provide more insight to the other 🙂

        “I must have missed something” was exactly what I took with me from “The Innocents”. (My review is here btw – http://bookishrealm.blogspot.fi/2013/05/review-innocents-by-francesca-segal.html) I don’t think it’s a bad book, tastes are different, but it definitely wasn’t working for me at all.

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