Re-imagined characters and storylines from classic novels seem to be everywhere in publishing today. I've read some good ones and some not-so-good ones. Most of them work best if you've read the original text, but I think they should be able to stand alone, as well, and bring something new to the story. The Innocents by Francesca Segal uses the genre to provide an interesting look at the way gender roles have changed in the last 100 years, and at at the way some of them haven't changed a bit.
The book is a remarkably faithful re-imagining of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, the 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that details the strict social conventions of the upper classes in New York City and the price to be paid by those who defy them. The Innocents takes place in present-day North West London, more specifically among its close-knit Jewish community. Loyalties and connections run deep in this place of shared values and histories, where nothing stays private for long.
Wharton's classic characters, Newland Archer, May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, are replaced by young lawyer Adam Newman; his fiancee, Rachel Gilbert; and Rachel's cousin Ellie Schneider. Segal transposes the past and present storylines accurately, sometimes down to the smallest details.
In the beginning, Adam adores Rachel because he sees her as untouched and predictable. This is how he describes his beloved:
Rachel liked what she knew and was content for everything to remain precisely as it was, though it would be unfair to say she was ignorant. That there were worlds and lives beyond theirs had not escaped her, but she was certain enough of her own place to be resolutely incurious about the knowledge those worlds might offer.
Not the words of an enlightened man, to my ears. Throughout the book, Adam refers to Rachel as "Pumpkin" and talks of how he "indulges" her during arguments. But soon after re-connecting with her more worldly cousin, he starts to see the behaviors he has encouraged during their ten years of courtship as childish and embarrassing. Through his surprisingly passionate feelings for Ellie, who has come home to her family to escape the heartache and scandal of her life in New York City, everything Adam has believed in is suddenly called into question. He begins to see Ellie as both strong, for flouting convention, and so weak and damaged by life that he must protect and care for her.
If you've read The Age of Innocence, you know how the story goes. All the best parts are here: scandal, secrets, jealousy, betrayal. It isn't called a classic for nothing. If you haven't read it, be prepared for some old-fashioned, juicy drama. And be prepared to witness modern day characters struggling with the outdated expectations of the past and the unreachable, contradictory expectations of the present. In The Innocents, Segal has successfully made Wharton's century-old observations about women's options relevant for today's women.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Francesca Segal was born in London and attended both Oxford and Harvard. She works as a journalist and book reviewer for a wide variety of publications. The Innocents is her first novel. You can find out more on her website.
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