THE UNWITTING by Ellen Feldman


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A conspiracy-theory novel about spies, lies and personal loyalty set within the insulated world of left-liberal New York intellectuals during the Cold War era.

Feldman (Next To Love, 2011) begins her novel on the day Kennedy was shot in 1963, tying narrator Nell’s personal marital drama to national events. Something bad has happened to Nell’s husband, Charlie, but before revealing exactly what that something is, Nell relives their relationship: The two meet in 1948 as college students (Barnard and Columbia),  both attending on the GI Bill. From the beginning, Nell, who joined the military to escape a difficult home life, is more the leftist firebrand than Charlie, whose Jewish awareness of the Holocaust has strengthened his patriotism. After Charlie lands a job at the (fictional) magazine Compass, an avant-garde, anti-Stalinist, left-leaning intellectual journal not unlike Commentary or the Partisan Review, he and Nell marry. Before long, he becomes editor in chief; Nell becomes a staff writer. They rent a big apartment on the Upper West Side, send their daughter to private school, attend literary soirées with the likes of Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell. While Nell pushes Charlie to be less timid as an editor, they survive the McCarthy era and subsequent Communist witch hunts only mildly scathed. They support civil rights; Charlie is the first to publish King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” By Kennedy’s election, cracks have appeared within both their marriage and their intellectual circle. It's to Feldman’s credit that until Nell jumps to the aftermath of the 1963 tragedy, readers will suspect without being sure which of several characters, including Charlie, are not exactly who they seem. Perhaps the strongest section of the novel is Charlie’s journal, in which he struggles through moral dilemmas without Nell’s penchant for self-righteousness.

While the role of what Charlie calls “the left-wing Jewish intellectual mafia” during the Cold War remains fascinating (at least to liberal intellectuals), the schematic quality of Feldman’s plot and characters limits the reader’s engagement. 

Pub Date: May 6th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9344-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2014


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