December 13, 2018

A questionable woman in the synagogue?

Ah!  How authors wax poetic about the allure of a vulnerable woman!  How tempting it is for that mensch in shining armor to whisk that vulnerable waif off her delicate feet and carry her away on his white horse, how tempting to rescue her from unnamed perils, and especially from her own demons.  When that mensch happens to be the just-engaged 28-year-old Adam Newman, who lives in the close-knit Jewish community of Temple Fortune in the suburb of London, where tradition rules and everyone’s nose is in everyone else’s business, that mensch is in deep trouble.

Francesca Segal’s wonderfully nuanced debut novel, “The Innocents” (Hyperion, 289pp), is the winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel Awards, the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize.  It was also longlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (The Orange Prize).  The novel, we are told, is loosely based on Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.”  But to this reviewer, Segal’s portrait of the social manners of today’s Jewish community in Temple Fortune was so absorbingly familiar that any similarities or differences to Wharton’s aloof New York 19th-century community was soon forgotten and “The Innocents” took off on its own.

Adam Newman and Rachel Gilbert have been sweethearts for 12 years, and their  much anticipated wedding date is fast approaching.  The entire community is abuzz with the news and preparing for the big day.  Adam is enamored of Rachel, of her beguiling innocence and her deep respect for the traditions of their community—not a rebellious bone in her body.  The only difference they are having is that Adam wants to move the wedding date closer, even if that means there won’t be enough time to prepare for a lavish party.  But Rachel will not hear of it.  She has to consider the wishes of her mother, Jaffa, and grandmother, Ziva, in addition to an entire community that expects nothing less than a grand affair.  Adam can only insist that much.  He owes much to his future father-in-law, Lawrence.  Not only is he employed as a barrister in Lawrence’s firm, but Lawrence has replaced the father Adam lost in childhood.

The story opens on Yom Kippur in synagogue, the “congregation is fasting until sunset tomorrow night; in the meantime they were meant to be atoning.”  But that becomes increasingly difficult when Rachel’s cousin, Ellie Schneider, who lived in New York for years, appears unexpectedly in the women’s balcony.  The scandalous Ellie is a model who presumably acted in a pornographic movie.  Segal brings Ellie to life with all her charming qualities as well as her faults—the clear inquisitive green eyes, the dark circles around them, the chutzpah to wear revealing clothes and to smoke outside of synagogue on Yom Kippur.  She is tall and frail-looking and free-spirited, a tortured soul in dire need of rescuing.  In short, she is everything Rachel is not.  Adam’s first reaction is that “whatever other rumors might be circulating about her, he did not want the congregation thinking his fiancée’s cousin was a porn star.” 

But it will not take long before Adam finds Elllie’s otherness, her independence, her disregard for tradition and especially her vulnerability, hard to resist.  To Segal’s credit, the drama unfolds slowly, realistically and against the backdrop of fully-developed characters.  Adam’s inner conflict is rendered with wisdom and believable poignancy as he grapples with unfamiliar emotions and struggles to break away from a culture and a love that suddenly feels suffocating.

I sped through the pages and across a richly rendered tapestry of Jewish life to discover where Adam is headed.  In the process, Ellie’s shady past is further revealed, the Gilberts experience a financial crisis,  Shabbat dinners, Rosh Hashanah, and “Christmakah party,” come and go, and the wedding date is here.

Is Adam so naïve and unable to weigh the consequences that he might risk all, whisk Ellie off her feet and gallop away to join her tempting world?  Will he conclude that since his father would disapprove of the man he has become, “Now he would make it right only with honesty” and that “he would have to leave Rachel, would have to leave Lawrence, and that he was losing this beautiful, precious family that he and his first love had brought into being and that would be broken by his betrayal.”