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The Unwitting: A Novel Hardcover – May 6, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Functioning both as a complex portrait of marriage and a clear snapshot of a particularly paranoid time in American history, Feldman’s latest novel (after Next to Love, 2011), set in the early sixties, takes on the Cold War. When liberal journalist Nell Benjamin is informed that her beloved husband has been murdered in a mugging, her bright, beautiful world is upended. The editor of a progressive magazine, Charlie had been her soul mate. But what she discovers about his work, and the shadowy corporation responsible for funding it, shatters her illusions about the man she thought she knew so well. Her grand love affair is now revealed to be based on keeping secrets, and her sense of betrayal runs deep. Unsure of how to tell her daughter and how to face her friends, Nell must come to terms with her own unwitting participation in the charade. Feldman intertwines the personal and the political while clearly drawing the cultural atmosphere of the early ’60s, when definitions of patriotism were not so clear-cut and communism was a palpable threat. --Joanne Wilkinson


“Much of the fun comes from the literary cameos (think: Mary McCarthy, Richard Wright and Robert Lowell), but it’s [Ellen Feldman’s] haunting portrait of a marriage that make this Cold War novel so resonant for readers of any time period, including our own.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“The first notable thing about this book is the narrator’s voice: it is snappish, confident, argumentative, literate. I fell for it from the beginning. . . . The Unwitting is vibrant, sassy, informative, a page-turner, absorbing, and swift. I am a woman, so maybe it is a women’s book, but I seriously doubt it, and hope that male readers will give it a shot. Surely they too will appreciate the research that went into it. Surely they too will be fascinated by its bold and thorough review of the American twentieth century.”—Kelly Cherry, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“Compelling enough to take its place with the best of crime fiction, Feldman’s language is loving, bright and sharp while her storytelling abilities are unquestionable. . . . The Unwitting cuts us into an interesting time, then ramps things up. . . . Feldman is clearly a writer who is going places, [and] The Unwitting brings that home: it’s a terrific book.”January Magazine

“A story of love and intrigue during the Cold War, The Unwitting plumbs not only the secrets of spies, but those of the human heart. Moving, witty, and thoroughly intelligent, it is an absorbing and deeply satisfying read.”—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd
“Unforgettable . . . The Unwitting compelled me from the first page and through every unexpected twist and turn. This look into the dark places in human nature cries out to be read, re-ead, and discussed.”—Lynn Cullen, author of the national bestseller Mrs. Poe
“Through the lens of a passionate, complex marriage, Ellen Feldman brings the Cold War back to life. The Unwitting is a wise and irresistible portrait of fascinating people in a tumultuous time.”—Roger Straus III, former managing director, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; First Edition edition (May 6, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812993446
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812993448
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,369,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Janet Perry VINE VOICE on May 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Meeting while at college on the GI Bill, Charlie and Nell share a love of writing, liberal causes, and each other. Soon after their marriage Charlie becomes publisher of a liberal monthly. The first part of the book tells the story of their marriage in the 50's literary world. It's all here, investigation by McCarthyites,CIA-sponsored conferences in Europe, State Department-sponsored trips behind the Iron Curtain, protest marches. The Benjamins, especially Nell, seem unaffected by the rumors and secrets around her.

The second part of the book takes place after Charlie is murdered in Central Park on November 22, 1963. Nell works to overcome her grief in the atmosphere of national mourning and mostly succeeds until a TV show makes allegations about her husband.

The final section of the book delves back into the past to reveal the truth.

The book was beautifully written, well-researched, and evocative of that period. This is a pre-Mad Men world mostly, with that sophistication, but wrapped up in an intellectual world concerned with important things. Feldman does an excellent job of showing the world from her narrator's point of view (Nell) so that you really feel her emotions both at the time events are happening and nin the future as she reflects on them in later life.

The issues of freedom of the Press, the Cold War at home and abroad, and our responses to it are all well-portrayed in this lovely novel in a way that makes them far more memorable than a stack of non-fiction books.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By David Keymer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
On the day that JFK is killed, Nell Benjamin gets a call and her life is turned upside down. Her husband Charlie has been killed, apparently the victim of a random mugging in the Park. She stumbles through the next weeks in a fog. She and Charlie had quarreled the night before: she was mad that he had allowed an acquaintance to make an offensive remark about women. The anger had spilled over into the morning and they hadn't resolved it when he left. Now it never would be resolved. Months pass. Life starts up again. A few years... Then she learns something new about her dear Charlie, a secret exposed on Sixty Minutes. He had lied to her about basic things in his life. ("He is sprawled on the bed, his dark lashes lying like fringes on his sunburned cheeks, his breathing peaceful as a crypt, and I shake him awake to ask him a question. He doesn't even need time to think. The lie comes as quick and easy as a reflex. The lie is who he has become. What does that make me?") Everything she feels about him flip-flops. Then she has to deal with that.

This is a grownup novel about how idealism can be subverted by the pressures of living in a complex world of warring nations, where twisting the truth can be made at times to seem the less corrupt of corrupt choices. It is also an exceptionally well written novel -lean, human--with an appealing protagonist, Nell, who is one smart tough cookie. Like the best novels about actually living life, some of the ends are left untied when you're finished --you're left with a feeling of how complicated lives can actually become in the real world.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Nell Benjamin has always assumed -- no, she has KNOWN -- that she and her husband, Charlie, share the same ideals and the same goals. She has been confident of his fidelity to those principles, even as she was certain of his fidelity to her, in the hard-drinking, partying crowd of writers, artists and other New Yorkers that they inhabit in the New York of the 1950s and early 1960s, as Charlie makes his name as editor of the Compass, a progressive magazine, for which Nell herself also writes when not raising their young daughter, Abby.

On November 22, 1963, everything changes. It's the day that JFK is shot; that CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley also die. But among the myriad deaths overshadowed by the assassination of the president is Charlie's: he has been shot in an apparent mugging in Central Park. At first, Nell assumes her tragedy is merely a personal one, and strives to rebuild her life, focusing on the causes to which she clings tenaciously -- her civil rights and antiwar beliefs -- and her hopes of finding a new relationship. Then come the revelations that Charlie might have been keeping secrets from her. Not the kind of secrets that a husband might be expected to keep from his wife -- nothing banal like another woman. Instead, what Nell discovers about Charlie cuts straight to the heart of those common goals. "How had we loved each other so much and understood each other so little?"

The novel succeeds best when Feldman is portraying the world that Nell and Charlie, as part of the New York intellectual scene, inhabit in the 1950s, at the height of the "red scare" and during the era of loyalty oaths and anti-communist hysteria.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Maine Colonial TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 13, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
What I want most of all, when I open a book, is to get that feeling right away that the author is going to tell me a story; that in that first couple of pages I will be taken into someone else's world. Ellen Feldman does that here. There is a real sense of immediacy in her writing.

A Prologue begins the story on the morning of November 22, 1963, with freelance journalist Nell Benjamin in the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, Charlie, and their young daughter, Abby. Just seeing that date at the head of the chapter lends the book's title, The Unwitting, a certain ominous weightiness. We know, though Nell doesn't, that President John F. Kennedy will be assassinated later that day. What Nell also doesn't know is that Charlie will be killed that day as well; supposedly murdered by a mugger in Central Park in broad daylight.

We flash back to Nell and Charlie's meeting in the years after World War II, in which they both served. Students on the GI Bill at Columbia, they fall deliriously in love. Both are politically engaged leftists and both are anti-Stalinists. And that matters in the 1950s, for of course this is the Red Scare era in the US, and the early years of the decades-long Cold War between the USSR and the US.

Charlie, most of whose extended family were killed in the Holocaust, feels a keen sense of patriotic obligation to the US, and he is enthusiastic about being offered the editorship at Compass, a literary journal with a liberal, but anti-Soviet, take on issues, that is backed by the moneyed Davenport Foundation. This is an opportunity to take part in the cultural Cold War that was also raging.
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