Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE was such a beautifully cinematic rendering of Edith Wharton's classic that it's almost impossible not to imagine Adam Newman, the protagonist of Francesca Segal's modern retelling of the same novel, as played by a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Appropriate, too, as Adam is English and Jewish, like Day-Lewis himself.
"[THE INNOCENTS] offers genuine insights into the present-day Jewish community's ongoing evolution and current challenges, as well as the fears of commitment that haunt every relationship at one time or another. Stylish, sexy and smart, THE INNOCENTS does nothing less than transform Wharton's beloved novel into a new drama for current times."
Segal's book follows much the same storyline as Wharton's original, but she cleverly and thoughtfully updates her story for its time and place, structuring Adam's inner drama around the holidays and commemorations of a large Jewish family and its surrounding community. North West London, where the novel is set, is the home of London's Jewish establishment, the place where Adam and his fiancée, Rachel, have grown up together. As the book opens, recently-engaged Adam is experiencing the first of the many doubts that plague him throughout the story. At synagogue, he catches a glimpse of Rachel's troubled but undoubtedly alluring cousin Ellie, a model and actress who has recently been expelled from Columbia for starring in an off-color film.
Rachel couldn't be less like her dark and moody cousin. In a society that is politically and socially liberal, which values education for both men and women, she and her best female friends nevertheless reserve their highest aspirations for marriage and motherhood. Rachel's default mode is "cute"; Adam calls her "Pumpkin," and she responds in ways equally childish. So pure and simple does Adam and Rachel's relationship seem that Ellie, in apparent sincerity, asks Adam if he and Rachel (both of whom are in their late 20s and have been dating for over a decade) have had sex.
They have had sex, but Adam's thoughts roam far afield from his relationship with Rachel. As he grows older and his impending marriage nears, he asks himself constantly --- particularly when in Ellie's company --- if the conventional path he has taken (marrying his high school sweetheart, working in her father's law firm) has been one of uncertainty and fear: "Adam had always assumed that to pursue independence was to sacrifice security…. The community was liberal and elastic, far more than he'd allowed himself to admit. It was he who had been rigid. It was his own insecurity that had constrained him. If only he'd known, Adam reflected with a throb of indistinct regret, he would have stridden forth without fear --- but then he had already walked so very far following the old rules."
"Regret" sums up much of Adam's worldview in THE INNOCENTS, both as he imagines what a life with Rachel will look like, and later, once he starts to pursue a relationship with Ellie in earnest. But, as in Wharton's novel, Adam soon learns that Rachel and their community have reserves of strength and cunning that he never could have expected.
In some ways --- particularly in its emphasis on manners and morals and on its adherence to Wharton's original plot --- THE INNOCENTS is a very old-fashioned novel. But it also offers genuine insights into the present-day Jewish community's ongoing evolution and current challenges, as well as the fears of commitment that haunt every relationship at one time or another. Stylish, sexy and smart, THE INNOCENTS does nothing less than transform Wharton's beloved novel into a new drama for current times.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 8, 2012