On the most superficial of surfaces, Francesca Segal's novel The Innocents appears to be about a young man named Adam Newman being torn between his long-time girlfriend-turned-fiancee Rachel and her beautiful, fragile cousin Ellie.
While this novel certainly explores these issues, alluding to Edith Wharton's famed Age of Innocence, what the novel is really exploring is Adam and his issues. Being a Jewish London resident, Adam has grown up with a set of societal expectations and enforced etiquette that are at once comforting and familiar, as well as suffocating. Having proposed to his long-time girlfriend Rachel shortly before the novel begins, he begins to feel his life becoming set even more rigidly into what is expected of him. Then he meets Ellie, who has recently moved back to London, and who is gorgeous and wonderful and almost never does what is expected of her.
Fighting over his feelings for Ellie and Rachel is really a reflection of fighting within himself over what is important - the fact that sex is involved is merely an added bonus.
(There are other issues which come up, and which Adam is dealing with, but which I am choosing not to mention in this review to make it less spoiler-y.)
I really, really, enjoyed this novel. I was also immediately struck by the fact that this novel is making parallels and allusions to Wharton's novel - though I have never read Wharton's novel, and so cannot make clever and witty observations with respect to how deep the reference runs. I will say I found it intriguing that Segal was able to draw so many parallels between the Victorian age of Wharton's novel, and the Jewish sect of modern-day London. To be honest, I do not know much about Jewish culture, but found the environment both edifying as well as easy to follow.
Reading The Innocents also makes me eager to seek out a copy of Wharton's Age of Innocence, partly because it's a piece of classical fiction that I haven't read yet. Partly because I would like to see how far the parallels run between this modern novel and the older one.
I highly recommend reading this novel, whether you have read Wharton's novel before or not. The writing is beautiful and sophisticated, the subject matter is dense but enjoyable, and the ending is a very interesting one that will leave the reader thinking about the novel long after reading the last page.
The Innocents is currently slated to be released in June 2012.