Click here to read reviewer Leslie Raith's take on The Unwitting.
Feldman’s espionage melodrama tells the story of a long marriage between writer Nell Benjamin and her husband, Charlie, a New York journalist. Nell and Charlie are essential to the tale’s historical setting of the United States (and the Soviet Union) in a landscape where blacklists, witch hunts and government skullduggery were commonplace. The author creates two vivid characters with their own motivations and weaknesses, painting a passionate love story filled with history, longing and resignation.
The assassination of JFK reflects Nell’s own tragedy—the murder of the man she sleeps beside every night and wakens next to every morning. For just one moment, Charlie is like a stranger loping along the sidewalk toward a destination Nell doesn’t know. Then she receives the dreaded phone call telling her that Charlie has been tragically murdered in Central Park, the incident happening at exactly the same moment as Jackie and John Kennedy’s convertible zooms through Dallas. After hearing the devastating news, Nell feels as though she has little else to live for, apart from her teenage daughter, Abby. This relationship jumpstarts the novel, allowing Nell to construct a confessional of sorts, detailing the events leading up to Charlie’s death.
The Unwitting is about the many ways life can turn on a dime. Feldman tunnels through Nell’s past, plunging us back into her early years where she clandestinely courts Woody. Against a background of Manhattan’s brownstones and Broadway’s reflected lights, Nell falls for the handsome African-American, constantly attentive to his “sore heart and fragile ego.” Remembering the furtive late-night encounters, Nell looks back with pity and shameful hard-hearted glee on that girl who had “worn her misery like a billboard.” Nell has plenty of aspirations but few plans. Her friends think it odd that she liked picketing and political passions and had a “negro boyfriend.”
Feldman’s novel is well-crafted and beautifully nuanced, reflecting a particular affinity for the struggles of women through the racially segregated Fifties and the civil rights struggles of the Sixties. Although the subject matter has been covered before, in both literature and film (think Mad Men), Feldman’s book has a sense of urgency and mood that separates it from the pack. Among the main characters, Charlie is the most interesting. He’s sweet and ambivalent, and even though his sensibilities are European, he has an unbridled faith in America. But Charlie’s allegiances come into question. He gets a letter to report to the Office of Security, who view Compass, his left-wing literary magazine, as a “suspect organization,” and perhaps Charlie himself as a national security risk.
As Nell attempts to unlock the key to Charlie’s secret, enigmatic life (and whether he indeed had a connection to the CIA), Feldman admirably portrays Manhattan’s whisky-swilling literary set, a society of philandering, left-of-center intellectuals who challenged a government that was convinced its citizens were hatching plots and simmering conspiracies. Feldman elegantly brings to life Nell’s rising frustrations and disappointments over her personal life alongside Charlie’s impassioned world where books are banned, suspect writers subverted and reputations destroyed.
The best part of the novel is Nell’s trip to Leningrad to accompany a cultural exchange tour by the American cast of Porgy and Bess. Here she reconnects with Woody in a fashion that threatens to derail her marriage. Two strong-minded, articulate people who have plenty to fight about, Charlie and Nell come to realize the “totalitarianism of the left is not so far from that of the right.” Political allegiances up the sexual ante as well adding to the vital undercurrent of betrayal and subdued racism (a theme that permeates the novel). Ironically, her friendships with both Woody and Frank Tucker most impact Nell, the two men filling her life with love while exposing many of her secret yearnings.
While Frank and Charlie monopolize the politics, there remains a cosmic sadness to Nell, as if she’s grieving in advance for greater troubles to come. Nell’s dilemma is that she’s forced to relate to the wider world almost exclusively through Abby. This may be accurate in terms of the roles women were expected to play decades ago, yet it sometimes splits the book down the middle. Still, Feldman effectively fuses her delicate story of love, passion, and personal transformation with the vast undercurrents of great social change.