Francesca Segal’s The Innocents received a great deal of critical acclaim. Not only did it win the 2012 Costa First Novel award, it also won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in Fiction and made the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. But does it live up to the hype?
Loosely based on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Francesca Segal’s debut novel follows childhood sweethearts Adam and Rachel. Their lives are threaded together in every way – from their intricate family relationships to the fact that Adam is a trusted employee of a business run by Rachel’s father – so their engagement comes as little surprise to anyone in their immediate circle. But while Rachel is busy planning the perfect big day, Adam is having a crisis of confidence.
Full of self-doubt, Adam is torn between Rachel, as well as the inherent expectations that lie on him as a member of a tight-knit Jewish community, and her alluring, vibrant and vulnerable younger cousin Ellie.
Ellie is the antithesis to Rachel, the family black sheep with a devil-may-care attitude to life. For Adam, already questioning his mapped out future as the perfect Jewish husband, her appearance is the catalyst that pushes him over the edge.
Some people have criticised this book for its in-depth descriptions of Jewish culture and community, but this was actually the aspect of the book that I most enjoyed. It’s the most detailed discussion of Jewish society that I’ve ever read, and I found it really interesting.
However, I just didn’t feel that the central figures were in any way likeable. This was probably because we see everyone else from Adam’s perspective, and for me, Adam is nothing but self-centred and weak. As a result we see Rachel alternatively as either a homely and loving safe haven or a clingy and vapid black hole sucking him into a life that he’s not sure he wants.
I’m not even really sure who can really be considered as ‘innocent’. Adam is lacking in any life experience, Rachel is clueless to all of her fiancé’s misgivings and Ellie has her own childhood traumas leaving us questioning whether she’s an instigator of trouble or a victim of her own troubled past. This may have been the very point that the author was trying to convey, that we are in fact all innocent in our own ways. But while the book read really well and I did enjoy it, I just couldn’t relate to any of the characters.
Essentially, it all boils down to one simple question. How do we know if the grass is really greener on the other side, and is what we have ever good enough?