Join Francesca Segal to talk about April Book of the Month, THE INNOCENTS, Tuesday April 30, 9-10pm

(112 Posts)

Firstly, many congratulations to our April author Francesca Segal - not only the winner of the Costa First Novel Award, but also now longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, announced two days ago.

Francesca's debut novel is a beautifully executed homage to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. The central story of THE INNOCENTS - a newly engaged couple from a privileged community, whose impending marriage is threatened by a dangerously seductive cousin - remains the same. But Segal's transports the characters to contemporary London, specifically the sheltered and insular Jewish community of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Adam and Rachel have known each other since childhood; their families (like all the families they know) meet in the same synagogue, holiday in the same Israeli resort, gather at the same feasts at each other's houses year after year. When the wayward and vulnerable model Ellie Schneider arrives back from New York, she causes much consternation in her inability to act 'appropriately'. To Adam, her presence makes him reevaluate everything he held dear: the stability and security that he has always strived for suddenly appearing claustrophobic and restrictive. Segal's masterstroke is her anthropological take on society: the collision between timeless Jewish customs and the changing world beyond the NW postcode, and the endless cultural expectations that every character - from shiksa bride to widowed matriarch to ex-pat New Yorker - must shoulder. Fun, observant and a clever twist on tradition.

You can find more details on our April book of the month page, where there are 50 FREE copies to give to Mumsnetters - to claim yours please fill in the form on the book of the month page. We'll post on the thread when all the copies have gone. If you're not lucky enough to bag one of the free books, you can always get your paperback or Kindle version here.

Find out more at Francesca's beautifully designed website or you can follow her on Twitter: @francescasegal

There are also interesting discussion points and a Q&A on the Vintage website.

We are thrilled that Francesca will be answering questions about THE INNOCENTS, her prizes and her writing career on Tuesday 30 April, 9-10pm. So please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month and then come and meet the author on Tues 30. Hope you can join us...

SarahAndFuck England Tue 30-Apr-13 18:39:36

I hope so Empress

Although as with Gone Girl, I really hope we might have a sequel one day to see how they are getting along.

I'd like to see what happens if Ellie comes back on the scene in ten or fifteen years time, and how Adam and Rachel have fared in their marriage. And what happened to Adam's sister and Rachel's parents. If Ellie's father ever came back (I have a secret hope that he left as a feckless drifter and reappears as some Alan Sugar tycoon type to stir up trouble with the older family members).

So, I guess that's another question for Francesca. Any chance of a sequel? smile

Yes, the story is crying out for a sequel in ten years time!

I agree with others about the miscarriage and then the next baby showing Adams willingness to be 'trapped'. A great detail.

I wanted to also say I thought the dialogue and characterisation was fab. Has anyone you know seen themselves in the characters - whether they were based on them or not - and if so what were the reurcussions?

Evening everyone,

I am delighted that Francesca is joining us tonight from Israel to talk about her writing, her inspiration and the events that led her to write THE INNOCENTS. We already have many questions to get through, so off we go...

Francesca, firstly, thank you very much indeed for taking the time to be here. And many congratulations on a wonderfully engaging book and all your prize success. We'll kick off with the advance questions from further up the thread. And then we'll aim to get through as many new ones as possible over the next hour (although getting through all the posts above may take a good chunk of that...)

I'd also like to add our two standard MN Bookclub questions (which we like to ask all authors):

Which childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction? (without giving away too much of your MN Academy Writing for Beginners course...)

Over to you...

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:01:44

TillyBookClub

Evening everyone,

I am delighted that Francesca is joining us tonight from Israel to talk about her writing, her inspiration and the events that led her to write THE INNOCENTS. We already have many questions to get through, so off we go...

Francesca, firstly, thank you very much indeed for taking the time to be here. And many congratulations on a wonderfully engaging book and all your prize success. We'll kick off with the advance questions from further up the thread. And then we'll aim to get through as many new ones as possible over the next hour (although getting through all the posts above may take a good chunk of that...)

I'd also like to add our two standard MN Bookclub questions (which we like to ask all authors):

Which childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction? (without giving away too much of your MN Academy Writing for Beginners course...)

Over to you...

Hello everyone,

I'm so thrilled to be here - thank you so much for having me!

First of all, to answer Tilly's questions:

What childhood book most inspired you?

Several, at different stages. The books I remember devouring in early childhood were Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, and then when I was about twelve being absolutely captivated by anything John Wyndham had written. But the book that first stopped my heart was Wuthering Heights. I think it’s still, secretly, my template for true romance!

What would be the first piece of advice you would give to someone attempting to write fiction?

The first is absolutely fundamental – to read everything you can lay your hands on. All writers are passionate readers; it’s how one learns the craft. The more one stuffs into one’s brain, the more likely it is that several completely discrete facts, or thoughts, or stories, will fuse into something new and inspire you. I am always surprised when writers say they don’t read fiction when they’re writing as they want to keep “their” voice – I think the more voices you’ve heard, the more likely you are to be able to know your own.

And the second is to try not to be self-conscious. No one need read a word you’ve written until you’re ready to show them so until then write entirely for yourself, and try your utmost to ignore those invisible eyes looking over your shoulder at the page. (As they say, dance like no one’s watching etc.)

For anyone who wants to write, I think Stephen King’s little slip of a book, ‘On Writing’ is fantastic. I’ve not yet read any of his fiction (I get very easily scared!) But it is a generous, wise, honest account, and a practical guide to writing. He compares it to laying pipe, which I think is an excellent analogy.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:02:48

Thank you so much. You are very observant! In my head, Adam grew up in a Reform family, which explains Olivia’s bat mitzvah etc – I grew up Reform, and I knew a lot of families who observed tashlich, even though they weren’t orthodox. I never imagined Hoop Lane Crematorium – right across the road is the Hoop Lane Jewish cemetery, which is where Adam’s father is buried.

But Rachel’s family go to a United Synagogue – and of course, when Adam gets together with Rachel, it’s Rachel’s family traditions they take on, as a couple. Hence the women’s gallery and hats (and contradictions!)

Choccheesecake

I read this over the weekend - just couldn't put it down. With relatives in exactly that area I knew every place and every person (convinced Rachel is a morph of two of my cousins!) and absolutely loved it.

I do have one question though... Most of the stuff in the book implies that the main characters are orthodox (as in synagogue rather than observance...) ie the sitting in the ladies' gallery and the various customs and rituals (tashlich) etc. But a couple of things didn't quite fit. Adam's sister was (I think) 13 when her father died and her bat mitzvah was looming - yet if she was orthodox it would have taken place at 12. Ditto the Hoop Lane crem stuff (ie orthodox/traditional Jews are buried and not cremated).

Given Adam's father was the religious one of the family and most of the other characters so perfectly reflect the United synagogue-style community that I know from Hampstead Garden Suburb I just wondered whether this was an error or done intentionally?

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:03:27

Thank you so much! I’m thrilled you loved the book. I think, and as you note I’ve said elsewhere, that anyone who is part of any close community will relate to elements of this world. If you live in a small village you have the same experience of everyone knowing when you pop to the pharmacy (“Maybe she’s pregnant!” etc); and anyone from a close family is familiar with the experience of wanting to please one’s parents, while also wanting to make decisions for oneself. I think people have interpreted the book many ways, which is legitimate. Some people see only the claustrophobia and feel stifled by it – and I’m sure there are people in that world who find it challenging sometimes – but some people focus on the strengths that come with it – the support of the community, the strong moral values of family and responsibility and caring for one another. I appreciate both sides (but I do find Rachel very annoying!) But people are people, in the end. It’s a human story.

Lomaamina

I loved your book, which I can happily say I read months ago, when I first spotted a review in one of the Sundays. I must admit to not being well-read enough to get the 'Age of Innocence' allusions, but that's no matter: I found the book unputdownable and I felt the main character's difficulties with the strictures of the community were very true to life and (as you said in a recent radio interview I believe) just as true for any other family-oriented community as the Jewish. My only slight discomfort was with how the central characters seemed to move through life on tracks perfectly oiled by the comfort of financial security. All those generous trips to Eilat!

My question is: do you think that the real-life equivalents to your main protaganists are likely to recognise themselves in this picture; to be equally chafing at the narrowness of their (albeit supremely comfortable) lives? Or are they going to be identifying with Rachel through and through?

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:04:02

oldmacdonaldhadafarm

Chatting about the book with a friend (I loved it btw) and she said that you are Eric Segal's daughter. Is this true? How did I not know this? I looooove his books and have read them all over and over (if it is true did that put a lot of pressure on you to succeed in the same field?)

Thank you. It’s true! You didn’t know it because I did as much as was humanly possible to keep it quiet. I am so immensely and deeply proud of my father, and I know he would have been equally proud of me now my book is published, but I wanted to be my own writer, and I wanted the space to succeed or fail on my own terms. And yes, to answer your second question, it would have put immense pressure on me if this book had come out with ERICH SEGAL’S DAUGHTER WRITES NOVEL plastered all over it – which is why I didn’t tell anyone!

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:04:41

Thank you so much – I am absolutely thrilled that you enjoyed the book. Yes – I agree. Throughout the novel we are on Adam’s shoulder, and he isn’t always right. He feels hugely constrained by the community and by certain choices he’s made, whilst remaining blind to the fact that other people have made entirely different life choices around him and the world didn’t stop. Similarly, while Rachel is sometimes incredibly annoying, Adam is so patronising about her – I would smack any man who tried to call me ‘Pumpkin’! He underestimates her. He’s a little pompous too, and a very conventional man at heart.

SarahAndFuck

I downloaded this to my Kindle and loved every word. If you haven't finished reading the book, don't read this though.

I was interested in Rachel very much. She was very much dismissed throughout the book as an only child, a spoilt child, a pampered child who had grown-up to become a bit of a child-woman, in need of constant soothing and gentle handling, helpless, a perfect Jewish princess who relied on her parents and fiancé to continue the pampering and pandering so she didn't really have to grow up all that much.

Everyone in the book seemed to like her but Adam swayed between adoration and annoyance. And she was annoying. But he seemed to view her as being so naive and self-involved and satisfied with her lot that it was only at the very end that she came across as being very shrewd and clever, and he suddenly came across as being incredibly naive about her.

I didn't like her very much as presented through Adam's eyes, I preferred Ellie, but Rachel right at the end was the one who seemed to come out of the book as the most complex person after all.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:05:17

Thank you so much (and I’m glad you managed without the Yiddish phrasebook in the end – my publisher wanted me to do one, and I wasn’t sure, sorry if they were right and I should have included it!) Yes, to answer your first thoughts, both close and comforting – and at the same time, intensely claustrophobic! I’m so thrilled you liked the book, thank you ☺

DuchessofMalfi

I finished reading it last night. First of all, I want to say thank you to Francesca Segal for writing such a thoroughly enjoyable novel. I loved it.

I did wonder, at first, whether I might need a phrase book to translate the Hebrew/Yiddish phrases grin but it turned out to be quite easy to get the meanings. And, in fact, it was a nice touch - another means of drawing all the characters together.

I liked the way at the end that the community all pulled together to help Lawrence and Jaffa in their financial difficulties.

Adam was an idiot - he nearly lost the best thing in his life through his stupid behaviour. I liked that the family and wider community pulled together to remove Ellie, quietly and quickly, from the scene to protect Rachel and Adam's marriage. Nice touch ending on a family party.

I'm looking forward to your next novel smile

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:05:54

No, I didn’t base the characters on real people. The book is very much fiction. But like you, I have also met quite a few girls like Rachel though, and I was always quite scared of them. They seemed absolutely certain that they knew what they wanted, and that anything else was out of the question. I know, a lot of people wish it had ended in precisely the opposite way. But if it had gone the other way though, do you think it would have lasted?

cm22v077

Hi, enjoyed the book but was disappointed that it didn't go the other way at the end! Have always been fascinated with Jewish culture so it was an interesting read.
I know a few girls like Rachel who infuriate me so was routing for Ellie and Adam the whole way even though it was wrong!
My question is, do you know people like Rachel? Were your characters based on people who you know or have observed?
Thanks!

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:06:29

Yes, sometimes they aren’t sympathetic. Adam is self-satisfied and Rachel can be an enormous pain in the backside. But he’s such a conventional man at heart, however he might have liked to envisage himself, I’m not sure it ever would have lasted if he’d run off into the sunset with Ellie…

EmpressOfThe7OceansLovesMN

I enjoyed the book too. I guessed fairly soon that Adam was going to fall for Ellie, which made me think I knew how it was going to end, but then with just a couple of chapters to go I realised I still had no idea who he was going to choose.
I didn't find any of the characters that sympathetic, which was really refreshing in a way because it made them much more real and meant that even though the book was through Adam's eyes I didn't feel manipulated into being on his side (or anyone else's!)
My question to Francesca is, what did you think of the ending? Did you secretly wish that Adam had been free to go off with Ellie?

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:07:07

SarahAndFuck

*My Questions*

I suppose we would all like to know if you were rooting for Rachel or Ellie throughout the book, and which of them you wanted Adam to choose?

But did you know who Adam would choose when you started the book, or did his choice only become clear to you as you wrote?

And did you like Adam?

I found myself liking Ellie far more than I liked Rachel, but by the end I thought Rachel was far more complex than anyone gave her credit for, including Adam. I think when I reread the book, I may have different loyalties second time around.

I didn’t know at the beginning what would happen – even though I had the Age of Innocence has a model, I was very open to it going in almost any direction that felt right to my own, twenty-first century characters. But by the time I reached the end I just knew what would happen – which was quite different from what I wanted to happen. It wasn’t up to me!

I didn’t always like Adam. I found him pompous and deeply conventional, although there were times when I pitied him. He’s hardly my dream man, put it that way!

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:07:35

I very much think there’s room for all. I am a huge fan of Naomi and her writing, and I think the worlds and the dilemmas that we describe are different enough that I didn’t need to feel threatened by the existence of the novel. If anything, I think the fact that she had written a novel set in (a very different part of) Jewish north London that had gone on to win a prize strengthened my belief that there might also be an audience for mine.

Thisisaeuphemism

When I first started reading, I thought - this is similar to naomi aldermans 'disobedience' - that is, the arrival from new York of an ex-insider who is going to cause ripples among the insiders and have an affair.

As it transpired the books are v. Different and I did love them both. I thought the second half of yours was terrific with great momentum. I wanted to ask tho, if, when you first heard about 'disobedience' did your heart fall or did you understand immediately that there is 'room' for all?

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:08:01

aristocat

What a charming book, thank you. I must confess that I am finding the Jewish words a struggle but I have not finished reading it yet, sorry.

My question to Francesca is simply what's next please?

Thank you so much! And I’m so sorry… after reading the comments here I feel so bad I didn’t include a glossary in the back – there was one point when we were talking about it, and then somehow it didn’t happen. What next – I am beginning the next novel, which is also a contemporary novel, set between London and Boston (which gives me an excellent excuse to go to America for “research”).

EmmaClarkLam Tue 30-Apr-13 21:08:18

Not sure if this is how I ask Francesca Segal a question for th webchat (not done this before!) Here goes: what made you decide to look at the conflict between the needs of the community and the freedom of the individual? Also, how difficult was it to write the book from the point of view of a man?

amazingface Tue 30-Apr-13 21:08:20

Hello Francesca. I haven't read your novel yet blush BUT I'm planning to get my hands on it really soon.

Can I ask you to say a bit about your favourite female writers, please? smile

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:08:24

EmpressOfThe7OceansLovesMN

Does anyone else see parallels with Gone Girl?

Both heroines far more manipulative than they appear to be on the surface, both men unfaithful & on the verge of leaving them but then at the last moment trapped by a pregnancy. OK, it becomes clear that Amy Dunne is an outright sociopath but she practically tells us that herself. We never hear Rachel's voice, we only ever see her through Adam's eyes, & it's clear by the end that he doesn't know her very well at all.

I’m desperate to read that book! Yes – we learn that Adam’s often wrong about lots of things, Rachel included.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:08:54

Fourkisses

It took me a little while to really get into the book because of the Hebrew. However, once I got past that I was hooked, and couldn't put it down! I swayed between wanting Adam to do the right thing and then rooting for excitement with Ellie. By the end Rachel's character was depicted as more complex than we had first realised, possibly the most complex character in the book.
Un-put-down able and charming.
I haven't read the Age of Innocence so I missed those links. I'm off to download that to my kindle now smile

I am absolutely thrilled that you liked the novel – thank you so much! And I hope you enjoy the Wharton.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:09:36

SarahAndFuck

***SPOILER***

Was Adam trapped by a pregnancy though?

I wondered that, because he certainly seems to be by the first one. But after Rachel loses the baby it seems to be him that wanted her to try again for the baby they have by the end of the book. And I wondered if he did that because he had realised her loved her and wanted a family with her, or because he felt guilty and to blame in some way. Or for some other reason. But he seems so happy to be a father.

I kind of hope that when we realised there was more to Rachel than Adam had led us to believe, Adam himself realised the same thing once he got over the shock of the pregnancy and realised that he loved this 'new' Rachel. And that perhaps the miscarriage, coming at the same time as the financial crisis her family were in, gave them the opportunity to be a married couple without the overwhelming outside help from family that Adam seemed to struggle so much with. They could finally be a couple relying on each other.

Yes, I love this interpretation. Adam has hugely underestimated Rachel – but also, she changes too. She’s been lucky and sheltered and privileged, but by the end of the novel she’s suffered. She’s grown up.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:10:10

minimuffin

Hi Francesca - I have a couple of questions:

I was just wondering about your writing process today - did you write or consider writing a different ending where Adam took the plunge and left Rachel for Ellie? Or was it always clear to you that his character would never do this? (I really cared about him by the end of the book - I read another bookclub choice - Brooklyn by Colm Toibin - a couple of years ago and still wonder occasionally how things would have turned out for Eilis, would she have been happy. I know that I will keep wondering about Adam as well now!)

Did you include the bit about the miscarriage at the end to show that Adam hadn't felt trapped by Rachel's pregnancy, but had, in effect, re-committed to her and his marriage by trying for another baby? To me (because it all happened so quickly after Ellie's departure) it seemed that fatherhood gives him a clear focus and purpose, an anchor, yet another reason to do the right thing, so he is glad to try for another baby as soon as possible, it saves him as well as his marriage.

You portray your own community really positively and realistically in this novel, I think, and the portrayal is an affectionate one. Has the reaction to it in NW London been positive?!!

The ending was the main thing I struggled with in this book – when I was planning it at the beginning, when I was first getting to know my characters, I really considered almost every single permutation possible. But the better I understood Adam, the more clearly I could see what he would do – it didn’t feel as if I was deciding for him. I just understood. Yes – the miscarriage offered precisely what you describe – a moment in which he chooses fatherhood, and chooses without hesitation to stay.

The reaction has been very positive, in general. You can’t please everyone and so one or two people will always be a little offended. But the truth is – human beings are all the same. Every single community in the world has elements of the ridiculous about them, and as you say, I wrote with affection about a world that has a huge number of strengths. No one is perfect, but there’s also a lot to be proud of.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:10:41

platanos

Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your book. I am interested in tightly knit communities - how they can be both a source of security and a trap. Are you part of such a community?

I rushed the end (I wanted to know what happened blush] but was a bit surprised by Adam's "sudden" grief for his father. Is it because the community took care of the family when his father died, and he had no real chance to grieve?

Rachel surprised me a the end too. But then maybe I should not be so surprised, parenthood is a life-changing experience, and a new side of us often appears...

Will they be happy together? I can't decide...And will Ellie ever be allowed back? what then?!?!

Thank you so much.

Will they be happy together – ah, I can’t tell you, but I’d love to know what you all think!

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:11:03

TheOldestCat

Won't be able to make the chat but just to say I loved the book.

As others have said, Rachel was clearly more complex and interesting than Adam believes; I felt the whole novel turned on that point.

My question - is how much of the story for you revolves around fatherhood (parenthood)? It's interesting Adam and Ellie have both lost parents, Lawrence is the father figure for Adam, Rachel's son at the end. No time or brain space to devote to now, but it's the theme that intrigues me.

Thanks

Thank you so much! It’s so lovely to hear. Yes – I agree. Adam underestimates Rachel from the beginning, he has the capacity to be incredibly patronising. And yes, to your second question too – both parenthood and grief are central themes in the novel. As in life, I suppose.

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:11:30

SarahAndFuck

I hope so Empress

Although as with Gone Girl, I really hope we might have a sequel one day to see how they are getting along.

I'd like to see what happens if Ellie comes back on the scene in ten or fifteen years time, and how Adam and Rachel have fared in their marriage. And what happened to Adam's sister and Rachel's parents. If Ellie's father ever came back (I have a secret hope that he left as a feckless drifter and reappears as some Alan Sugar tycoon type to stir up trouble with the older family members).

So, I guess that's another question for Francesca. Any chance of a sequel? smile

Ah, I would love to but I think probably not. I absolutely adored living in their lives with them and I also would love to know what happens further down the line, if that doesn’t sound odd, but I think I should leave them alone for a bit. I have tormented them enough! (and now I really want to read Gone Girl!)

FrancescaSegal Tue 30-Apr-13 21:11:56

Thisisaeuphemism

Yes, the story is crying out for a sequel in ten years time!

I agree with others about the miscarriage and then the next baby showing Adams willingness to be 'trapped'. A great detail.

I wanted to also say I thought the dialogue and characterisation was fab. Has anyone you know seen themselves in the characters - whether they were based on them or not - and if so what were the reurcussions?

Thank you! No, one one has recognized themselves because I haven’t based any characters on real people. I wrote what I hope is an honest portrait of a world, but the characters themselves are created. I’m sure for all writers there are touches here and there that are inspired by whatever strange hybrids might form in the subconscious, though…

I felt the book was grappling with ideas of freedom, and whether people really want freedom. Ellie has it and is quite unhappy. Rachel doesn’t want it, and appears ignorant and intellectually unadventurous. There's that moment when they're in New York and the playwright is describing a sense of unbounded freedom in genetics, and Rachel just doesn't get it. But then you’d be mad to want total freedom. Total freedom would be absolute anarchy.

The family stability and support that rallies round during the crisis is almost like the hero of the book, charging in on its white horse. Freedom seems like the enemy at that point. Like the free market way the money has all been lost.

I think it is very interesting that even at the end, even after a certain maturity has set in, Adam doesn’t choose freely, he is directed by the pregnancy. Do you think if Adam had truly made himself free, he would also have been happy? Or does freedom never lead to much happiness?

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