By – April 16, 2012

Deceit and betray­al abound in this tale by first-time nov­el­ist Francesca Segal. Draw­ing upon Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-win­ning nov­el The Age of Inno­cence, Segal spins a tale of upper-mid­dle class Lon­don Jews behav­ing badly.

Twen­ty-eight year old Adam New­man is prepar­ing to mar­ry Rachel Gilbert, who has played loy­al girl­friend to his faith­ful bread­win­ner ever since they met on a teen tour to Israel twelve years ago. The two are flush with excite­ment and good wish­es on their new engage­ment when Rachel’s orphaned cousin, Ellie Schnei­der, returns to Tem­ple For­tune, their close-knit sub­ur­ban Lon­don com­mu­ni­ty. Tongues wag as Ellie, a stat­uesque blond wild child boot­ed from her writ­ing pro­gram at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty for star­ring in an adult film, is fold­ed back into the Gilberts’ social circuit.

But it’s Adam’s tongue that mat­ters most, as he soon finds he can­not con­trol the love he begins to feel for Rachel’s cousin, a love that threat­ens to unrav­el his engage­ment and his cov­et­ed sta­tus in the Gilbert family.

The Inno­cents bobs and weaves as Adam tries to remain in love with Rachel, ulti­mate­ly wind­ing up in a sur­pris­ing place. It’s an excit­ing jour­ney filled with vil­lains and vic­tims, but one that read­ers should be glad to watch from a distance.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Hype­r­i­on

1. Segal’s debut nov­el is a re-telling of the clas­sic nov­el by Edith Whar­ton. For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie adap­ta­tion of The Age of Inno­cence, dis­cuss the spe­cif­ic ways in which The Inno­cents par­al­lels Wharton’s nov­el, and then con­sid­er the impor­tant ways in which it departs from her nov­el. Does knowl­edge of this par­al­lel add to your under­stand­ing of Segal’s nov­el, or does it com­pli­cate it?

2. Apart from Adam’s ini­tial phys­i­cal attrac­tion to Ellie, what in the begin­ning of the nov­el fore­shad­owed that Adam and Rachel were not, per­haps, as ide­al­ly suit­ed to one anoth­er as he’d thought for the past 12 years? 

3. How did the back-sto­ry about Jackie’s death help you to sym­pa­thize with Ellie? What aspects of her per­son­al­i­ty seem most like­ly a result of her mother’s ear­ly death and her father’s sub­se­quent emo­tion­al distance? 

4. Dis­cuss Ziva’s rela­tion­ship with Ellie and con­sid­er how the two women are sim­i­lar in terms of being sur­vivors. How much do you think this account­ed for their mutu­al affec­tion for one anoth­er? Could any of the oth­ers – Jaf­fa, Rachel, Adam – have tru­ly under­stood Ziva? Why or why not? 

5. Com­pare Ellie’s char­ac­ter with that of Rachel’s, and dis­cuss Adam’s inabil­i­ty to com­mit whol­ly to just one of them for most of the nov­el. Between the two women, whom did you pre­fer? With whom did you sym­pa­thize the most? Do you think Adam made the right choice, in the end? 

6. Com­pare and con­trast the novel’s Ethan Good­man” finan­cial scan­dal with recent events in the finan­cial sec­tor of our own cul­ture – such as the Bernie Mad­off scan­dal. Dis­cuss how the ordeal oper­ates as a cat­a­lyst and as a com­pli­ca­tion of the plot with­in the nov­el. Do you think it can also work as a sym­bol with any of Segal’s themes in the book? Why or why not? 

7. How well does Segal por­tray the social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, reli­gious, and emo­tion­al lives of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in North Lon­don? Do you feel that she con­veys a rea­son­able and real­is­tic por­trait of this large and diverse group of peo­ple? What were her great­est strengths in her depic­tion, as well as her weaknesses? 

8. Sim­i­lar­ly, how did char­ac­ters like Ziva Schnei­der help you to under­stand the Israeli immi­grant expe­ri­ence? In par­tic­u­lar, what did the nov­el help to show about the Jew­ish sur­vivors of World War II, and their dif­fi­cul­ties with nation­al­i­ty and assim­i­la­tion into post-World War II Euro­pean society? 

9. Is Rachel’s char­ac­ter a pas­sive one? Would you call her pas­sive aggres­sive? Why or why not? By the end of the nov­el, in what sig­nif­i­cant ways has her char­ac­ter changed? 

10. Dis­cuss how Segal incor­po­rates the sub­ject of death into her nov­el – is her han­dling of the sub­ject mat­ter sen­si­tive? Objec­tive? Real­is­tic? Con­sid­er the many moments in the nov­el where death is encoun­tered or ref­er­enced and dis­cuss Segal’s suc­cess when it comes to writ­ing about the end of life and its impact on those who remain. 

11. Sim­i­lar­ly, dis­cuss Segal’s choice of set­ting for this adap­ta­tion of Wharton’s nov­el. In what impor­tant ways does the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of North Lon­don in the ear­ly 2000’s par­al­lel late 19th cen­tu­ry New York? Dis­cuss the key char­ac­ter­is­tics that these com­mu­ni­ties share, and then dis­cuss their impor­tant differences. 

12. Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of Segal’s title The Inno­cents to the char­ac­ters in her book. Not only does the title recall Wharton’s nov­el, but it reflects a char­ac­ter­is­tic of the group of peo­ple she’s writ­ing about, as well as spe­cif­ic char­ac­ters. Dis­cuss the ways in which is both a sin­cere title and an iron­ic one.