A Novel of Manners

Edith Wharton updated

When Ellie Schneider, heroine of Francesca Segal’s The Innocents (Hyperion, $25.99), sits in a London synagogue on Yom Kippur eve, heads turn and tongues wag. She is newly returned to London from New York, a figure of scandal, having starred in an ostensibly pornographic movie and gotten kicked out of graduate school. She is also part of a prominent family whose demure, innocent daughter Rachel is newly engaged to another upstanding member of this traditional Jewish community.

Ellie Schneider might be singled out by these whispers of condemnation and fascination, but she doesn’t stand alone as a literary figure. From its first pages, The Innocents deftly makes use of its literary forbear, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Ellie is a modern-day Countess Ellen Olenska, whose return to turn-of-the-last-century New York following a scandalous marital separation meets with the same degree of curiosity and talk.

Segal sticks closely enough to Wharton’s novel to draw the reader into regular comparisons between the two books, but never too often. The greatest pleasure of relocating the themes and characters of one novel into another is the invitation to see the commonalities between disparate worlds, to consider the ways in which the norms and mores of upper-class New York a hundred years ago have much in common with this British Jewish community in which duty, family responsibility and reputation reign supreme.

In the case of The Innocents, Adam Newman is a dutiful young lawyer comfortably guided by his sense of obligation. Having lost his father at a young age, he is welcomed into the Gilbert family when he begins dating Rachel as a teenager. He wants what he is supposed to want and does what he is supposed to do, and yet bubbling under the surface is a growing urge for adventure and unpredictability. As he conforms to every convention, a voice inside him wonders if he and his fiancé might find a way to break those expectations, even in small ways.

The growing attraction between Ellie and Adam is inevitable; she is all that Rachel is not — impulsive, unrestrained and unconventional. Yet one of the most impressive aspects of The Innocents is that Rachel is never reduced to caricature. She might be obsessed with the details of her grand wedding and become unmoored as she wholeheartedly embraces housewifery, but the reader’s sympathy lies with her as much as with Adam or Ellie. The Gilbert family, too, is portrayed with warmth and affection. It would be too easy to have them be terrible and overbearing, to have Rachel be mindless and demanding. Segal prevents any such easy escapes for her characters or her readers. She rounds out this world so that the choices between individuality and community, between passion and loyalty, are always painfully complicated.

To shatter the norms and leave a path of pain and dislocation; to stay comfortably inside and feel both the pleasure and stultifying pain of belonging. All too often this is an unsolvable dilemma — desire, responsibility, passion, and loyalty don’t always fit together into a single neat life. Adam makes his decisions, but there are few clear-cut choices in life. Knowing that — as this book does — is the real end of innocence.

Tova Mirvis’ third novel, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2013.