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?”