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A novel of marriage and a country betrayed
On a bright November day in 1963, President Kennedy is shot. That same day, Nell Benjamin receives a phone call with news about her husband, the influential young editor of a literary magazine. As the nation mourns its public loss, Nell has her private grief to reckon with, as well as a revelation about Charlie that turns her understanding of her marriage on its head, along with the world she thought she knew.
With the Cold War looming ominously over the lives of American citizens in a battle of the Free World against the Communist powers, the blurry lines between what is true, what is good, and what is right tangle with issues of loyalty and love. As the truths Nell discovers about her beloved husband upend the narrative of her life, she must question her own allegiance: to her career as a journalist, to her country, but most of all to the people she loves.
Set in the literary Manhattan of the 1950s, at a journal much like the Paris Review, The Unwitting evokes a bygone era of burgeoning sexual awareness and intrigue and an exuberance of ideas that had the power to change the world. Resonant, illuminating, and utterly absorbing, The Unwitting is about the lies we tell, the secrets we keep, and the power of love in the face of both.
Reviews and Praise
Bold and original...moral and political...Feldman gently explores the lure of complicity...questions the little deceptions and omissions that are the necessary glue of a life shared with someone else,...[and] manages to breathe immediacy into [the] decades...the originality of voice and thought [is] evident on every page...part love story, part mystery and part political thriller I would heartily recommend. Ellah Allfrey, All Things Considered, NPR
A compelling story...of mystery, political intrigue, and forgiveness. Much of the fun comes from the literary cameos (think: Mary McCarthy, Richard Wright and Robert Lowell), but it's the novel's haunting portrait of a marriage that make this Cold War novel so resonant for readers of any time period, including our own. Oprah's Book of the Week
A compelling writer... the novel is brilliant on the cruelty of grief... to her credit, Feldman steers clear of attributing modern, liberal views on feminism or race to this credible woman of the Fifties and Sixties...for a writer this bold and dexterous, this is fertile ground...[reminiscent] of early Margaret Drabble...poignant. Katy Guest, The Independent, UK
A Katy Guest choice for the Man Booker list. "Feldman is a strangely overlooked author who never holds back."
Vibrant, sassy, informative, a page-turner, absorbing, and swift... the narrator's voice is snappish, confident, argumentative, literate. I fell for it from the beginning...Feldman produces beautiful turns of phrase...male readers [too] will appreciate the research that went into it [and]... be fascinated by its bold and thorough review of the American 20th century. Kelly Cherry, L.A. Review of Books
"Gripping...a deep and disarming book about politics, human relationships, and love...meticulously researched...skillfully drawn." Library Journal
"A precise intelligent quandary-based novel...The characters are smart, the story's about marriage and other relationships but, more than that, it's about morality and ethics and what people do when their beliefs clash...Feldman integrated real events smoothly, including McCarthyism, the death of JFK, protest and peace marches, even the price of apartments in Manhattan. Words are powerful, and journalistic integrity matters. In this clever novel, good and bad mingle in ambiguous and unexpected ways." Psychology Today
An engrossing book...beautifully described, evoking a very real feeling of Cold War uncertainty and discomfort...the reader is drawn to the narrator, who seems so real and admirable...the story grips to the end and leaves you with much to consider. Rupert Godsal, Country Life (UK)
"Guggenheim Fellow, Ellen Feldman, wows us with her fifth novel... There is a lot going on in The Unwitting. In some ways it is a stylish portrait of love and marriage. In another it reveals an America in the throes of horrible change... 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, The Unwitting brings that home: it's a terrific book." Sienna Powers, January Magazine (UK)
"A page turner...Feldman is an easy, confident writer." Toronto Star
"A blend of cool, intelligent writing and breakneck pace...a cracking Cold War thriller, but also the story of a marriage...heaven ...my highest praise." Saga Magazine (UK)
"In CIA parlance, those who knew were ‘witting.' Everyone else was among the ‘unwitting'" ...That sentence makes Feldman's book sound a lot like the current television show "The Blacklist." But Feldman's finesse with both moral and emotional ambiguity makes her book a lot more like Thomas Mallon's Fellow Travelers than anything tube-based." Bethanne Pattrick's 'Top ten books of May, 2014,' The Washingtonian
"Brilliantly written...fascinating...a chilling account of journalists' lives...Feldman's sincere description makes Nell and Charlie's relationship familiar and relatable to the reader, which makes the ensuring events even more heartbreaking...compelling storytelling." Stylist.co.uk
Intriguing... part political thriller, part romance, and all well-written... the reader sees the postwar world from multiple angles. There's also plenty of accurate detail in the portrayal of the female characters, who are struggling against gender and cultural norms...Discovery is everywhere, both political and personal. The reader and Nell both learn some useful, though painful, lessons. Historical Novel Society
The author creates two vivid characters with their own motivations and weaknesses, painting a passionate love story filled with history, longing and resignation...well-crafted and beautifully nuanced, reflecting a particular affinity for the struggles of women...Although the subject matter has been covered before, in both literature and film, Feldman's book has a sense of urgency and mood that separates it from the pack. Michael Leonard, 'Curled Up with a Good Book'
Feldman's phrasing is as masterful as her plot and characterization...It is to Feldman's credit that although her work opens with Nell receiving life-altering news that might occur at the end of a more ordinary work, the novel continues to unfold mysteries and intimate secrets. Readers will keep turning pages to discover that last, ultimate secret. Leslie Rath, 'Curled Up with a Good Book'
"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...One of the things I so love about Feldman's novels is her ability to create strong female characters who are not anachronistic...Yet as much as this novel is the story of ....[a] marriage, it's even more the story of Nell and how she became the woman she is...filled with compelling characters navigating difficult events...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." Nomadreader (UK)
"I loved this book. Feldman has the ability to completely engross you in the world of the characters at the time in which they live... The writing is poetry. It's eloquent and all embracing... Put simply, I just couldn't get enough... I have read it described as ‘part mystery, part love story and part political thriller'. I agree with those comments...I'm new to Ellen Feldman's work but so glad we've been introduced...Immediately after I'd finished this novel, I placed some of Feldman's other work on my to-read list. I highly recommend it." All Things Literary (UK)
Tautly written...a splendid, page-turning book, exploring the territory of the Cold War as seen through the prism of one marriage...a pacy, fascinating read, heroes have feet of clay, the corrupt have surprising integrity. The reader, like the central character, is forced to interpret and reinterpret a life and events, backwards... full of absolutely believable twists and turns...I recommend it very highly. Lady Fancifull, Literary Fiction (UK)
‘The Unwitting completely absorbed me. The weaving of the public and the personal is exceptional—the way the questions of truth-telling, and silence, and secrets are allowed their full complexity and also their occasional simplicity, some evils, like political persecution, being pure evil. Emotionally keen, intellectually challenging, it's a book to read—and then read again." Robin Black, author of Life Drawing
"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
"Compelling and poignant...Not only is the writing atmospheric and subtle, it has great psychological tension." Nigel Farndale, author of the acclaimed, Costa-shortlisted novel The Blasphemer
"Ellen Feldman's masterful, unforgettable portrayal of a marriage during the Cold War evokes the era in beautiful but charged prose. The paranoia of the times crackles on the page as secrets are kept and Nell Benjamin, the narrator, is unwittingly caught in moral quandaries of the 1950's. A captivating work of storytelling that will keep you up late at night, The Unwitting is a timely, must-read novel that reminds us the past continues to haunt. " Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
"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 of Farrar, Straus & Giroux
"I read The Unwitting twice. The first time I read it for the story...The second time around I caught things I had missed the first time like subtle phrases describing what was to come, like the narrator was letting you in on a secret... A great novel..." The Sunshine Grove Blog
"Intelligent...poignant...impressive scope" Publisher's Weekly
"Fascinating..." Kirkus Reviews