The Innocents is based on The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and may I say what a fantastic title it is. Even for a die-hard Wharton fan, approaching the novel with absurdly high expectations, the title suggests that Segal is up to the challenge. Cutting down the scope of the 1920 novel from depiction of an entire ‘age’ to a focus on the individuals seems like an excellent way to update Wharton’s original vision and the horror inflections of Segal’s title, because of course we know that can’t all stay innocent, ties in beautifully with the misery, isolation and corruption of the source material.
In another astute move, Segal updates the story by moving it from the exclusive echelons of the New York aristocracy to the comparably exclusive Jewish community of North West London. As a Jew from outside this ghetto, I like to think that I can read this book as an outsider, while looking out for the trepidation with which it is greeted by my friends who live closer to the community depicted. Incidentally, this is also how I like to read The Age of Innocence, where Wharton takes evident joy in hunting through her family’s and friends’ dirty laundry before exposing it to common view.
The plot of the source material is also cunningly transposed. The first view of the ‘outsider’ into the perfect world is when the hero, Nathan, sees her in the woman’s gallery in synagogue; a lovely equivalent to Newland Archer’s first view of the Countess Olenska in the theatre. Part of the fun of The Innocents is seeing how closely Wharton’s story is followed – the last I’ll share with you is the switch from Newland’s fiancée’s vacation in Florida to the description of an annual family holiday to Eilat.
So far, so clever, but beyond the conception, how does the book stand up? The pat answer is that it should be judged on its own terms, but I think the above paragraphs have shown the problem with such an approach. Without the Age of Innocents Segal’s book loses a lot of its charm and possibly even its raison d’être. It’s like trying to imagine the novel of Bridge Jones’s Diary without Pride and Prejudice or, as Alice might put it, “what’s the point of a book without characters or plot?”
The Innocents is not The Age of Innocence. It’s witty and amusing, but the sheer fact that it relies so heavily on another writer’s original idea is indicative of how far it falls short of Wharton’s invention and brilliance. Segal’s real innovation in her treatment of her source does not, I think, add to the power of the book, though it does make it more pleasant. Unlike Wharton, Segal is not looking to criticize. Her characters are sweet, generous and people to be laughed with, rather than at. It is a tonal difference making her novel lighter and much less biting than the original. Ironically, Segal is much more protective of her characters than Wharton ever was, celebrating their innocence rather than exposing it as weakness. Maybe my expectations were simply impossibly high. As the title suggests, this is The Age of Innocence in a bite sized, digestible version which will amuse without ageing you.