Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Unwitting.
“I'm not brooding,” I snapped, then caught myself. I have a fear I've never confided to anyone, not even to Charlie, especially not to Charlie. One day someone will bug our apartment, and I'll hear the snippiness in my voice. I keep making resolutions to moderate it. Sometimes I succeed for weeks, or at least days at a time.
Oh, Nell Benjamin, I like you already! With the slightly paranoid reference to being bugged and confession of sharpness a mere page into The Unwitting prologue, it is not surprising to learn that the book's main character (and primary narrator) is an activist journalist living in the Fifties and Sixties. Ellen Feldman's fifth novel, The Unwitting, takes a targeted look at marriage fidelity, responsible parenthood, artistic freedom and career relationships, as well as the moral positions and political divisions that can undermine all of the above. Although the headlines are from the past—the Cold War, the McCarthy hearings, known CIA puppets—the basic questions remain pertinent. In today's highly divided political landscape, what is true patriotism? Should support of political stances ever trump honoring our personal promises? And how do we reconcile our family history, passionate loves, professional integrity, and hopes for the future with covert actions?
It is to Feldman's credit that although her work opens with Nell receiving life-altering news that might occur at the end of a more ordinary work, the novel continues to unfold mysteries and intimate secrets. Readers will keep turning pages to discover that last, ultimate secret that will, quite possibly, hopefully, explain Charlie's choices.
With Nell writing primarily for the liberal magazine that Charlie edits, their marriage turns out to be a more modern one than expected, and thus more embedded with the many ramifications of betrayal. To further complicate matters, Nell admirably struggles to help her daughter retain treasured memories of the Charlie who had been a caring, involved father. "Whatever was going on, she was not ready to tell me about it. Charlie had always known how to wait with her. I was learning," Nell confesses.
Subtle clues continue to dog Nell and young Abby years after Charlie's death, until what appears to be his truth is unavoidable. Friends and acquaintances see him as either a villain or a hero, depending on their livelihoods and politics. As "facts" continue to surface, Nell realizes, "I could not stop reliving my life backward. Not backward in time, but backward in perceptions and emotions. Everything was the opposite of what I'd thought it was."
Nell recalls that she did question her husband's editorial integrity more than once. But Charlie has surprisingly recorded his own reservations about their relationship in a journal, noting how hard she pushed for controversial content in his magazine. That is where Nell reads: "I will always wonder at what she did next. Was it a confession or a gesture of love, or were they not mutually exclusive? ...we stood holding each other as we had years ago, when we had been drunk on the newness of us and the limitlessness of a future that had become the soiled, written-in-stone past."
Years after Charlie's supposedly accidental death in Central Park, Nell attempts to restart her personal life only to be faced with additional challenges. Can you love someone who looks at the world from a radically different perspective than your own? Can you love someone who was closely linked to your dead husband? Can you love someone whose choices led you to this very time and place?
Feldman's phrasing is as masterful as her plot and characterization. Toward the beginning of the narrative, Charlie leaves for work, taking the elevator: "The sound was the gnashing and whirring of ordinary life going on." When Nell is on a work trip to Berlin: "The city struck me as haunted, by too many tears and not enough shame." On reactions to Kennedy's death: "... the optimism had darkened to the bloody stain of tragedy on her pink suit." And Nell's wise comment near the novel's end: "I was past the point in life when I believed people were of a piece. I had learned to live with ambiguity. If you can't, you have no business falling in love."
Not surprisingly, Feldman is a Guggenheim Fellow. I intend to add her other novels (Next to Love, Scottsborro, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank and Lucy) to the top of my summer reading list.