The basics: The Unwitting opens on November 22, 1963, but it's not a novel about the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. In this prologue, the reader learns it will be a momentous day for Nell and Charlie Benjamin, but before we find out why, the action jumps back to the beginning of their courtship.
My thoughts: The titular unwitting refers to those who were unaware of CIA connections and financial support of non-governmental foundations, publications and organizations. Throughout this novel there are questions of loyalty and paranoia about the CIA and its involvement, but these themes extend beyond the CIA into secrets and trust, of the government, of spouses, and of associates. These themes run rampant in this novel, and the reader shares the doubt of the characters as we all wonder "will we ever really know the truth?" The Cold War serves as a fascinating backdrop for this story about Nell and Charlie's marriage, but their marriage also serves as a compelling example of its time.
The emphasis on the CIA was expected, but I was pleased to see Feldman once again integrate racial issues and the civil rights movement so seamlessly into this narrative. In the span of this novel, there are so many stories of national and international importance, and Feldman manages to infuse them without cluttering the narrative.
One of the things I so love about Feldman's historical novels is her ability to create strong female characters who are not anachronistic, and Nell continues this trend. As a well-educated journalist, as well as a wife and mother, she struggles with finding time and space for her work. She also struggles with being taken seriously in her profession. In many ways, her marriage to Charlie both helps and hinders these struggles. Yet as much as this novel is the story of their marriage, it's even more the story of Nell and how she became the woman she is: "So long, Mom. See you around. I was nothing like my own mother, but I still had to be abandoned. If I weren't, I had failed. But I hadn't expected success to feel so bleak."
Favorite passage: "I was still young enough to believe that people fell in love for shared interests, common principles, and other logical rationalizations. I hadn't an inkling of the more primitive needs that drove them together. I'm not talking about sex, though of course that was part of it. I mean the hungers our pasts hollow out of our souls."
The verdict: Ellen Feldman's historical fiction is filled with compelling characters navigating difficult events, and The Unwitting is no exception. So many events are beautifully brought together in Nell and Charlie's story, from the Cold War to civil rights. While the narrative could have easily been muddied with all of the rich historical detail, Feldman once again uses history to enhance the characters as much as she uses the characters to enhance the history. The result is a fully realized portrait of both one marriage and its time and place.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 305 pages
Publication date: May 6, 2014
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