27 March 2012

The Innocents; Francesca Segal

The InnocentsThe Innocents by Francesca Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on Wharton's Age of Innocence but set in the equally claustrophobic community of London's NW11, home to many Jews, this is not the book for people looking for a traditional love triangle or lots of plot-driven action.

Ziva is a Holocaust survivor who left Mandate Palenstine for London; like many other survivors, she raised her two children, Jaffa and Boaz there. This second generation has created an extremely close and interrelated community: they attend the same temple, go to the same schools, do business together, and raise their children together. Everyone that Adam and Rachel know are part of this community, and all events are predictable because everyone conforms to the community's goals (Adam describing what he knows his wedding will be like is a beautiful example).

Rachel, raised by Jaffa and Lawrence in an extremely cossetted single-child home, is the real "innocent" who never thinks (or wants to think) outside her familiar box. Adam, on the other hand, is drawn to the community in part because his father died when Adam was 8 - he finds comfort in his near adoption by Rachel's parents, in particular Lawrence's guidance. Michelle, Adam's mother, is remote emotionally but still part of this close-knit group. After dating for ten years(!!), Rachel and Adam finally get engaged and start to plan the marriage.

The love triangle comes in the figure of Rachel's somewhat wild-child younger cousin Ellie, daughter of Boaz (whose wife was killed in a terrorist attack during a vacation in Israel). Ellie shows up to Kol Nidre (the most somber and, in some ways, important of the Jewish holy day services) nearly naked... she smokes pot and coconut joints... and she clearly doesn't fit into the old-fashioned world of NW11. Adam's attraction to her develops slowly, and there are a lot of frustrated half-attempts to connect with her before the end.

It's this passivity of action, and the fact that so much of the real action is muted - almost off stage - that make this a different read that harkens back to Wharton. The author also assumes that readers will understand enough Hebrew/Yiddish to translate some of the dialogue and will have enough familiarity with the Jewish experience to understand the various holidays and events mentioned. 

ARC provided by publisher.

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