The Unwit­ting

  • From the Publisher
April 29, 2014

Ellen Feldman’s new nov­el, The Unwit­ting, is both time­less and time­ly, mul­ti-lay­ered and mul­ti-sen­so­ry. It is a provoca­tive and stir­ring sto­ry whose char­ac­ters demand atten­tion. Span­ning over twen­ty years, The Unwit­ting revis­its a his­to­ry that haunts us to this day. 

Nell, in deep mourn­ing, is rewrit­ing the sto­ry of [her] life.” She opens the jour­ney in 1948 as she and Char­lie meet at a par­ty while attend­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Both vet­er­ans and both in school on the GI Bill, they come togeth­er from oppo­site ends of Amer­i­can life. Nell is well on her way to mak­ing an indepen­dent life after an unim­pres­sive, neglect­ed past as an only child to a sin­gle mom; Char­lie is the only son of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish social­ists, arriv­ing in the Unit­ed States just as Hitler tight­ens the screws and their entire Euro­pean fam­i­ly per­ish­es. In a short time they are a couple. 

The opin­ion of the day was that mixed mar­riages nev­er work and that Nell was Charlie’s tick­et” to being accept­ed, but their love is believ­ably strong. They begin work­ing their way up in the world as jour­nal­ists, she as a writer and he as an edi­tor. Both are lib­er­als, but with dif­fer­ent ways of express­ing their prin­ci­ples. Nell is an activist, an ear­ly support­er of the pre­cur­sor to the NAACP, fiery about civ­il rights and democ­ra­cy. Char­lie is fierce­ly patri­ot­ic, ever grate­ful to be in Amer­i­ca with all the ben­e­fits of free­dom, yet more cau­tious, it appears, about his views. This all begins to play out as Char­lie is cho­sen to be the edi­tor of a well-known lib­er­al mag­a­zine, sup­port­ed by a wealthy foundation. 

Stal­in, McCarthy, and the CIA dri­ve the polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive. We know the times and their motives. As the cou­ple gets caught up in a tan­gle of involve­ment the stakes, both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al, rise. Char­lie is the per­fect pup­pet for the CIA, whose intent on spread­ing pro­pa­gan­da via a good left-wing anti-Sovi­et mag­a­zine” is unsur­pris­ing­ly stealthy. He is wit­ting,” the term the CIA used for those who took their mon­ey and vowed to keep it secret. The rest of the crowd, who did not know, are the unwit­ting.”

At the very core of Nell’s his­to­ry are these secrets, so dam­ag­ing they threat­en to destroy an endur­ing love. Secrets and lies so mis­un­der­stood they dom­i­nate the dev­as­tat­ing griev­ing process. As she begins to unrav­el all the con­flicts, she asks her­self, How had we loved each oth­er so much and under­stood each oth­er so little?”

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