Book Review

Adam is the perfect Jewish fiance… until temptation rears its pretty head in this engaging first novel

Reviewed by Viv Groskop

Published: March 3, 2013

Part ambiguous morality tale, part guidebook on north London Jewish community culture, this is a hugely enjoyable first novel. With a nod to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, it has already won the 2012 Costa First Novel award and the 2012 National Jewish Book award for fiction. It's another sort of coming of age too: the author is the daughter of Erich Segal, who wrote Love Story. Childhood sweethearts Adam and Rachel are getting married. Adam's under pressure because his father died when he was a child and his mother just wants to see him settled. Meanwhile, Rachel's family have already taken Adam in as if he were their own son. He works for his future father-in-law's business. He acts as a chauffeur and dogsbody for Rachel's mother and grandmother. He's already the perfect Jewish husband, with his whole life mapped out.

Except for one thing. Rachel has a ridiculously attractive cousin, Ellie, who has returned unexpectedly to the family after years away in New York. Adam feels a bond with Ellie, convincing himself that this is because they both lost a parent at the same age. But it transpires that she has been having some kind of relationship with a married American millionaire since she was underage, and financial transactions are involved. She's a legal – and moral – minefield.

From the opening pages of the book, it's obvious that Adam and Ellie are going to do something they shouldn't…

Or are they? Is Adam as weak as the next guy? Or is he a mensch? Can he live with himself if he does something with Ellie? Worse, can he live with himself if he doesn't?

This novel is rich in the comic detail of family get-togethers and ritual feasts as Adam fights to bring the wedding forward, to push himself out of temptation's way. Rachel, meanwhile, oscillates between saint and witch, sometimes coming across as the innocent victim, sometimes the unbearable limpet.

The Innocents asks a simple question: how do you know you've married the right person? And it gives a complicated answer. The end result falls somewhere between Charlotte Mendelson's When We Were Bad (about a matriarchal Jewish rabbi) and David Nicholl's One Day (with its theme of mismatched love) and is all the more pleasing for that.

Perhaps not one to read if you've just got engaged, though.
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