Set in one of northwest London’s tight-knit Jewish communities, Francesca Segal’s debut novel “The Innocents” tells a tale of family and love that includes all the ingredients of a widely read story: lust, betrayal, doubt and commitment. Adam and Rachel are in their late 20s and engaged to be married. Then Rachel’s free-spirited and vulnerable cousin Ellie enters the scene, causing uneasiness in the conservative community — and in Adam’s life.
First released in June 2012, the novel has won 33-year-old Segal six awards, including the 2013 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In early December, she was awarded the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for Jewish Fiction by Hadassah Magazine. The book has been translated into German, Italian and French, and Carnival Films, the company that produced “Downton Abbey,” has secured the film rights.
Segal, the daughter of late Erich Segal, the author of “Love Story,” is a journalist and writer who lives in London and New York. She has just started working on a new novel, and met with the Forward before the award ceremony for the Ribalow Prize in New York to talk about her self-identification as a female Jewish writer, her own experiences growing up in northwest London, and how Jews behave on the subway in the United States.
Anna Goldenberg: You studied experimental psychology at Oxford. How did you make the leap from that to writing?
The award, worth $100,000, is one of the largest literary prizes in the world and is given for fiction and non-fiction in alternating years. This year’s runner-up, who receives $25,000, is Ben Lerner for his novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station.” Other finalists included Shani Boianjiu for “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” Stuart Nadler for “The Book of Life,” and Asaf Schurr for “Motti.”
Inspired by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” Segal’s book examines the upper-class Jewish community of North West London. The novel is being adapted into a TV show in the U.K. by Carnival Films, the company that produces “Downton Abbey.”
Founded in 2006, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature “honors the contribution of contemporary writers in the exploration and transmission of Jewish values and is intended to encourage and promote outstanding writing of Jewish interest in the future.” Last year Forward opinion editor Gal Beckerman was awarded the prize for his book, “When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle To Save Soviet Jewry.”
Fear not, those of you who were disappointed when it turned out that there was no yiddishkeit at Downton Abbey! It seems a kosher version of turn-of-the-20th-century upper crust British life is coming to the small screen in the near future.
The U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reports that Carnival Films, the production company behind the wildly popular show, has greenlighted a television adaptation of “The Innocents,” the successful debut novel by Francesca Segal.
The book, loosely based on Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” set in the Temple Fortune neighborhood of London (in the very Jewish borough of Barnet), tells the story of a young couple, Rachel and Adam who met while touring Israel. Adam is a lawyer, and Rachel has a very opinionated Palestine-born grandmother (Hmm…where might we have seen an Edwardian-age grandmother with a barbed tongue before?). Also part of the story is Ellie, Rachel’s seductive and cosmopolitan American cousin, who possibly poses a threat to Rachel and Adam’s relationship.
Earlier this week, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel and about being asked the question “Who are your characters REALLY?” Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr. Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs. Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.
“Nu?” he demanded, settling back for a chat. “Why isn’t she married?”
At the time I was 27.
“Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.”
And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.
On Monday, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. “Go on,” a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, “you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.” Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel “The Innocents” is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.
Francesca Segal’s debut novel “The Innocents” is now available. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I would never have set out to recast a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel — it seemed the height of chutzpah. But once the idea took up residence in my mind it proved impossible to dislodge. I was living in New York when I read it — far away from the Jewish community in north-west London in which I have lived for most of my life. And, reading a novel set in 1870s haute New York society, I felt such an unexpected, urgent, vivid sense of recognition that I could no longer imagine writing another word until I had written this. The trappings were different but the social concerns, the pressures, the closeness and longevity of friendships, the judgement, the parochialism, and the paramount importance of What Everybody Thinks – it was just the same. Golden Age New York to Golders Green. The central dilemmas remain essential and unresolved.