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Segal's Wharton remix an engaging debut

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Reworking classic novels has become something of a literary trend. Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies is an update of Henry James' The Ambassadors, while Zadie Smith's On Beauty is a supple contemporary take on E.M. Forster's Howards End.

In an engaging debut, Francesca Segal tackles Edith Wharton's 1920 masterwork The Age of Innocence.

A journalist brought up in both England and the United States, Segal transposes the Anglo upper-classes of Gilded Age New York to a comfortable Jewish suburb in 21st-century north London. This unexpected gambit (mostly) works wittily and well.

Give Segal extra points for chutzpah, since Wharton could be a ferocious anti-Semite.

The Innocents centres on Adam Newman. A serious young man, Adam is engaged to Rachel Gilbert, one of the "Nice Jewish Girls" with whom he has grown up, and works contentedly in his future father-in-law's legal firm.

Imagining his life with Rachel, Adam thinks: "It was more than possession, more than union, more than love. It was certainty, and a promise of certainty always."

Certainty gets thrown over with the arrival of Rachel's cousin, Ellie Schneider, known for her irregular upbringing, bohemian habits and for some mysterious sex scandal with a New York billionaire. (A bit improbably, Ellie is a world-class fashion model.) Adam's haze of erotic longing coincides with his belated discovery that "there is a world outside NW11."

The conflict between comfort and freedom, responsibility and desire might be universal, but the setting is very specific. Segal observes "the custom of the country," as Wharton would say, with insight and empathy, calling up a round of synagogue and celebrations, good-natured gossip and food -- lots of food.

Adam's community offers the reassurance of closeness and continuity -- "It had only been at university that he had understood how unusual it was that he could list the whereabouts of all his nursery school classmates" -- while at the same time expecting adherence to spoken and unspoken social standards.

Segal sometimes labours too hard to follow the Wharton original, and there are moments when The Innocents feels like a technical exercise. At other points Segal creates meaningful parallels.

The eccentric grandmother figure in The Age of Innocence becomes an Austrian Holocaust survivor, for example. "Her generation, living through what they lived through, don't give a shit about napkin rings," as Ellie points out.

Segal is no Wharton. But then she doesn't really want to be. Wharton's novel is complex and contradictory, ruthlessly delineating emotional and sexual repression while retaining its own careful reticence.

Segal is warmer than her gimlet-eyed inspiration, and she softens her satire, offering more sympathetic characters and a much more hopeful conclusion.

Wharton, who was born into the upper classes and risked a great deal to divorce her feckless husband and forge an independent life, chafed at her society's constraints.

Segal also comes from a privileged background -- she is the daughter of Love Story author and Yale classics professor Erich Segal -- but came of age in a time of unprecedented individual freedom. She seems to see more good in the social bonds of her background.

Though it can be overly obvious at points, The Innocents works as an affectionate portrait of a claustrophobic, crazy-making but caring community.


Alison Gillmor writes on pop culture for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 J9

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