No, I know. I’m totally with you. It’s a cover I wouldn’t have picked up off the shelf for all the world. For one thing, its scene is a stereotypical image of London bordering on the obnoxious: gratuitous shrubbery against a matte grey sky. For another, the character we’re following at close range is wearing a temporally ambiguous outfit that doesn’t hint at the book’s appealing and well written 21st-century timeline. And finally, the fact that only a distressed damsel is featured on the cover totally disregards the book’s actual central figure; it is, in fact, a man named Adam Newman that the reader follows throughout, not this misty fleeing figure running right toward obscurity with its tired trend of prominent-female-back-and/or-neck jacket art. Know this: it is a great read despite its shelf facing, not because of it. And you really should read it, because aside from all the mental (and visual) blockages I had towards beginning it, once you’ve nestled into the world of Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, you will not resurface, as it turns out, for all the world, either.
The Innocents follows the close third-person account of Adam’s life after his proposal to his girlfriend of 13 years, Rachel Gilbert. His devotion to her staid, elegant disposition is unwavering until the return to Britain of Rachel’s more American, more rebellious, more generally pornographically hot cousin, Ellie. Adam is, by page 22, tempted to “slide a hand between her thighs,” but for all Ellie’s faults and mistakes she remains devoted to her engaged cousin as the latter plans the wedding. A frustrating turn of events for Adam, to be sure – and I mean a 200-page-long type of frustrating.
The soon-to-be Newman couple lives in the heavily Jewish suburbs of North West London, and I mean heavily in terms of devoutness and suffocation. Here I thought having an Irish Catholic family was “familiar.” But Segal’s onslaught of names, occupations, and intertwining, living, breathing connective tissues take up whole paragraphs of backstory explanation and fill your head to bursting with the thick of it, just as an outsider alone, and Segal effectively places us under all the same social pressures and obligations of London’s newest generation of potentially child-bearing Jews:
It had only been at university that he had understood just how unusual it was that he could list the whereabouts of all of his nursery school classmates. He could say if they were married or fat…he knew their sexual histories…but tonight, on the eve of Yom Kippur, everyone was here—Hayley Pearl, who was Jasper’s girlfriend’s sister; Dan Kirsch, who had been in Adam and Jasper’s scout pack and had twice been on tennis camp with Rachel; Ari Rosenbaum, whose brother had married a girl who’d gone out with Dan Kirsch.
These webs are revisited and tied together in infinite loops, Mobius strips, until you can’t tell where you started or who even the reader knew first. In fact, Segal so succeeds at this enactment of a familial cage, this conversion of all her readers to the faith known for guilting mothers and baby-crazy aunties and hyper-detailed bris planning, that her biggest flaw in the storyline, in my opinion, is how boring and/or unappealing she can often make both her female characters in an attempt to equalize them oppositely in the eyes of cold-footed Adam. Out-of-the-box Ellie is so brazen with her life choices so as to appear more stupid than alluring, and Rachel is another problem entirely: in presenting the embodiment of a “safe” choice for Adam, by being the “ideal” image of a wife, she can be a caricature in her own uncoolness and propriety, such as when Adam sends her a song a day to express his love for her:
“She’s the One” had been a good choice—he had awoken that morning to a long and grateful e-mail….‘I’m marrying the sweetest man in the world.’ He had made up for the ground he’d lost over the Akon “I Wanna Fuck You” debacle…which she had found “just so insulting to be honest, Ads, did you press the wrong thing?”
Never in the book does Rachel joke or laugh too easily, or say much without a manipulative agenda based in a plain, unchanging (albeit purely devoted) love for the only man in her life. Some traction is gained by the latter half of the book’s explanation for this, but it comes so late that I don’t know if any part of me roots for her for during the first 200 pages. Not that we’re necessarily supposed to; we can feel Adam’s stress as he sweats out the greatest temptation he’s ever faced in the form of someone else we’re not sure we like, and it’s a pleasure simply knowing that Segal has presented Adam, and by extension, us, with an insurmountable quandary.
And again, this is all just a list of what to look out for if you think The Innocents can’t make a convert out of you, too. You’ll still inevitably be pulled in, regardless of what you find needling in this debut, because as Segal has ensured, you’re in too deep with this entire community to back out. You, like all the family and friends and neighbors and friends’ neighbors and neighbors’ friends and friends’ family and family’s neighbors, need to stick around to see what Adam chooses as his life hereafter, because as accepting as its liberal views may be, the Temple Fortune suburb in some way depends on knowing the answer to this multiple-choice question: Ellie? Rachel? No one? Where does a community posture itself when at least one of its own is betrayed at the hands of the other? And did I mention that Rachel’s father is Adam’s boss? And that Ellie lives with her and Rachel’s ailing grandmother? And that Adam’s mother is friends with Rachel’s mother? And, and, and: this will all somehow be affected.
There are moments when this book is downright striking in its beauty or its honesty, and which show you that this is not a book about Rachel, Adam, or Ellie nearly as much as it is a book about existing as a Jew, and whatever that may consequentially or subsequentially mean for any of them. There are asides throughout, sometimes presented as personal memories, that could sprout novellas of their own.
Rachel had nursed these fears alone until the school carol concert when, forced to explain why she did not want her snack-filching grandmother to come and hear her solo in ‘Silent Night,’ Jaffa and Lawrence had told her about the Holocaust.
Of course I can’t answer the fundamental question for you: which one? And in fact, you close the book not necessarily knowing, or rather, not feeling better off in that knowledge or the lack of it. In this way, Segal has presented us something real and palpable too: The Innocents, like membership in any true community, cannot be wholly satisfying or content—but does all it can to do us one better by being, at its root, something fulfilling.