The Unwitting: A Novel

The Unwitting: A Novel

by Ellen Feldman


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In CIA parlance, those who knew were “witting.” Everyone else was among the “unwitting.”  
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.
Praise for The Unwitting
“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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812993448
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ellen Feldman is a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of four novels, including Next to Love and Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


I hadn’t planned to go to the party that night, but as my roommate, Natalie, was leaving for the evening, she stopped in the doorway, turned back, and said, “Fine. Don’t go. Stay here and feel sorry for yourself.”

Until then, I’d thought she didn’t know me at all.

Sometimes I torture myself with the idea of what my life would have been like if I hadn’t gone that night. Charlie always said he would have found me somehow, but life is a tricky proposition. Happenstance trumps fate every time.

The apartment on 119th Street was packed with young bodies in search of one another. The heat they gave off cooked the temperature to a tropical high, despite windows open to the rainy January night. Smoke from forty or fifty cigarettes swirled through the air. The fumes made me queasy, and the queasiness revved up my fear until my pulse raced like a hopped-up engine. Could you have morning sickness at ten o’clock at night?

On the record player, Billie Holiday was warning that love could make you drink and gamble and stay out all night long. And Charlie, though I didn’t know his name at the time because I hadn’t been listening when he’d introduced himself, was leaning over me with one hand propped against the wall half a foot northwest of my head. It was a proprietary stance, but I was too preoccupied to care. All I knew was that he was not my type. Beneath a trim dark mustache, his mouth was wide but thin-lipped, a sign of a lack of generosity, I thought. His mouth made me remember kissing Woody.

Love will make you do things that you know is wrong, Billie sang.

He was talking about the antidraft rally on campus the day before and getting incensed about the unconscionable insanity of gearing up for another war. Under different circumstances, I would have agreed, but the draft was the last thing on my mind that night.

I could tell he was a vet. The war had been over for three years, but the campus was still swarming with them, though not still in their uniforms as they had been that first year. Correction: the campus was swarming with male vets. As far as I knew, I was the only girl.

I stood with a rag of a smile on my face, pretending to listen, while I berated myself for my naïveté. I should have been wary of Woody the day I met him. But all I’d noticed was his creamy milk chocolate skin and the sign he was carrying on the picket line protesting the revival of the movie.

birth of a nation

preaches race hatred


We had been perhaps ten protesters apart in a picket line of about twenty, which meant that we kept passing each other as we circled the sidewalk in front of the theater. I was the first to smile. It took me five or six passes to work up to it. When he smiled back, it was like the beam of a headlight swerving by. After a few more passes, we began exchanging comments. The demonstration broke up early, when a contingent of American Youth for Democracy arrived. Everyone knew they were a communist-front group, and the last thing the NAACP wanted was to be associated with communists. That was when Woody asked if I wanted to go for coffee. I said I did.

I’d assumed we’d go to a diner around the movie theater, but Woody was less naïve. He steered me to an out-of-the-way place on the border between the Columbia campus and Harlem. I suppose I should have known then that the romance was doomed.

Love is just like the faucet, Billie sang. It turns off and on.

Charlie was still talking. Beyond his shoulder, rain streaked down the window and made dark stains on the brownstones across the street. In the distance, the reflected lights of Broadway hung like a halo in the mist. I wanted to be away from the party, away from New York. I imagined myself roaming the world, an unwed mother with a beautiful mocha baby in tow. Only I knew I never would. The story would be too close to my mother’s, though she had married and stayed put with her white baby. Some of the more worldly girls in the dorm whispered about a reliable doctor in Pennsylvania. He performed the procedure on principle, unlike the back-alley butchers who were in it for the money, though he was not cheap, despite his principles. Woody had said he would get the money somehow. He wasn’t behaving badly. He had gone home to Philadelphia for the weekend to see his brother who would probably lend him whatever was necessary.

We hadn’t discussed the possibility of having the baby. If Woody wanted to save the world, he had to finish Columbia, then law school. I didn’t blame him for that. I’d fallen for him for that. But rationality did not enter into it. My sore heart, my fragile ego, my punctured pride wanted him to offer to throw it all over for me. Then I could stand on principle and refuse to ruin his life.

The sheer unholy injustice of it rankled. We had known each other for three months, but our entire sexual history consisted of two furtive, though protected, late-night encounters behind the locked door of the veterans’ affairs office, where he had a part-time job.

The thin ungenerous mouth was still moving. It made me think of kissing Woody again, and the memory made my stomach turn over on itself.

Sometimes when you think it’s on, baby

It has turned off and gone.

I felt the dampness between my legs. It took me a moment to realize that the sensation was not recollected passion. It was unmistakable, but it was probably a mistake. I was three weeks late and had had half a dozen false alarms. Only I could tell this was real. Maybe the nasty little discovery that love had turned off and gone had shocked my body into action, the way an icy bath or a fall down the stairs was supposed to but never did. A trickle of dampness was seeping down my thigh.

I mumbled an excuse, ducked under Charlie’s arm, and, clutching my handbag containing the sanitary pad and belt that I’d been carrying around for a month, started down the hall. That was the logical place for a bathroom, unless it was off the kitchen. You never knew in the makeshift apartments for vets and graduate students that had been hacked out of the respectable brownstones built for the solid families of another century.

I pushed opened the first door in the hallway. A bed heaped with coats seemed to be writhing in the darkness. A couple took shape. I slammed the door and kept going down the hall. The second door opened onto more beds and coats. I reached the third door just in time. As I slammed it behind me and pulled down my pants, several drops of blood hit the yellowing floor tiles. The relief made me sit down on the toilet seat hard.

Charlie was waiting in the hall when I emerged from the bathroom.

“Are you okay?”

I told him I was fine.

“You mean it wasn’t the booze or a sudden case of the vapors that sent you running, just my company?”

“No. I’m sorry. I mean . . .”

“It was a joke.” He hesitated for a moment. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.” He started to turn away.

Perhaps it was the euphoria of my escape, but the idea that anyone would worry if I was all right made me want to cry. “Thank you.”

He stopped, turned back, and stood staring down at me. For the first time, I noticed his eyes. They were brown, nothing to write home about, but if you looked hard, you saw green lights going off like pinpricks of curiosity.

“I mean it,” I said. “That was kind.”

“Ouch. Kind is for Boy Scouts and maiden uncles.”

“So think what happens when it comes in a different package.”

I was flirting. I could not believe it. I had either a fierce drive for survival or no scruples at all.

He leaned his right shoulder against the wall. “If that’s an invitation to stay, I accept.”

I leaned my left shoulder against the wall, mirroring his stance. He was coming into focus now. He had the long lean look of a man who lopes through life carelessly. The look, I would learn, was a lie. His hair, like his eyes, was dark. It was also receding, leaving two half-moons of skin above his high forehead. Maybe that was why he still wore a mustache. Most of the men who had come home from the war with them had shaved them off by now. His face was long too, with sharp cheekbones and that thin-lipped ungenerous mouth.

The image of what he was seeing in return suddenly occurred to me. For weeks I had been walking around in an un-made-up face to reproach the world for the mess I had gotten myself in. But even as I stood worrying about my appearance, I looked back with pity on that girl who had worn her misery like a billboard, and with a shameful hard-hearted glee that I was no longer she.

He was talking again. Now I could follow what he was saying. He was asking if I wanted to get out of there and go somewhere quiet.

The idea was indecent. How could I go larking off with someone new when my heart sat in my chest like a piece of cracked china? But someone had put on the Billie Holiday record again, and I was tired of hearing what love could make me do.

His coat was in one bedroom, mine was in the other, with the writhing couple.

“I’m not sure I ought to go in there,” I said. “When I opened the door before, I think I caught someone in flagrante delicto.”

“Can someone be in flagrante delicto?” He asked me what my coat looked like.

“A camel polo.”

“Right. There shouldn’t be more than ten or twenty of those.”

“Peck & Peck label,” I said and immediately regretted it. The coat was the most expensive article of clothing I owned, and my relationship with it was as complicated as any I’d ever had with a man. The fabric was soft and beautifully cut, and I loved being inside it, but my mother had wheedled it out of Mr. Richardson as a going-away present for me.

“Ah, the rich girl,” he said. “With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

I winced. He took it for bewilderment.

“ ‘The Rich Boy.’ It’s a long short story by Scott Fitzgerald.”

“I know what it is.” I was wondering if it was too late to change my mind about leaving with him.

Before I could, he pushed open the door. “Coming through,” he shouted and stepped inside. He was back in a minute with a polo coat in each hand. I took the longer one from his right hand. He hung the other on the doorknob, then helped me on with mine. We fought our way through the crowd in the living room and started down the stairs.

Outside, the rain had let up. The night was mild for January, but mist hung from the streetlights and steamed up from the pavement. Trees dripped overhead.

He had a long stride, and I had to stretch mine to keep up with him. When we reached Broadway, he took one hand from the pocket of his Navy-issue trench coat and closed his fingers around my arm to steer me across the street.

As we made our way south, signs flashing drinks, breakfast lunch dinner, chemists, and hardware burned through the haze. Tires of cars speeding past sizzled on the wet pavement like cartoon electricity. When we reached the West End Bar, I expected him to turn in, but he kept going. Several blocks farther, he stopped in front of a plate-glass window with two neon blue cocktail glasses tilting toward each other.

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