Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"The Innocents," by Francesca Segal

I am both attracted to and skeptical of novels based on other novels, especially those by great authors. Sometimes these new versions are wonderfully reimagined tributes to the original; sometimes they are just a botch, making one feel they are either cynically or cluelessly riding on the coattails of far better novels and writers. Fortunately, “The Innocents” (Voice/Hyperion, 2012), by Francesca Segal, is a worthy contemporary version of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” Of course it is not at the same level as Wharton's work, but it is an excellent novel in its own right. Although set in the present, it retains a whiff of the late 19th century of Wharton’s work, because the characters all live in a tightly connected group of family and friends, in this case all Jewish, in an affluent suburb of London called Temple Fortune. This community is as close as the high society of Wharton’s New York. The reversal of the two cities in the two novels is interesting, and the Ellen/Ellie character also reverses directions in her going away and returning. Speaking of the characters: the names of several characters in “The Innocents” have echoes of Wharton’s characters; for example, Newland Archer becomes Adam Newman, and Ellen Olenska becomes Ellie Schneider. Several other characters are clearly modeled after specific characters in the original novel; part of the pleasure of reading this new novel is making those connections with the original. The main story replicates Wharton's story quite closely, at least in its bones; there are of course minor adjustments for a different time period, and other small changes. This novel, to its credit, is enjoyable both for its reconstruction of the original and for its own self. One would not need to have read “The Age of Innocence” to admire and enjoy this new novel, although having done so certainly adds to the pleasure of the experience. As a quick summary and/or reminder of the plot: Newland/Adam is part of a close traditional and prosperous society, and is engaged to the very suitable May/Rachel. But then May/Rachel’s cousin Ellen/Ellie returns from a long time abroad, beautiful and trailing scandal behind her. As a (future) family member and a lawyer, Newland/Adam wants to help, but before he knows it, is deeply in love with Ellen/Ellie. They admit their mutual attraction, but Ellen/Ellie, out of loyalty to her cousin May/Rachel, refuses to allow Newland/Adam to leave May/Rachel. There is much tension, several side-but-related plot lines, and finally a bittersweet resolution. In the course of reading each novel, one also is given fascinating and detailed insights into these two close-knit, affluent societies, societies which have much in common despite being divided by a century or so, and by the Atlantic Ocean. Despite my initial skepticism, I was very much won over by this beautifully written novel, full of realistic characters, evocative of a specific community and way of living, and providing the tension of a classic love triangle in which there is a fourth side: a family/community/commitment that is as real and compelling as any character.

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