ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The writer Ellen Feldman is known for her historical fiction. Her first book was about the private life of President Franklin Roosevelt. Her next imagined the story of a boy who knew Anne Frank. Well, now Feldman has a new novel out. And this one is called "The Unwitting." It is set during America's red scare. And reviewer Ellah Allfrey says it's a great look into women's roles at that time.
ELLAH ALLFREY: Our heroine is Nell. She's a politically savvy college student when we meet her. She marries the saintly Charlie. He's an editor who nurtures Nell's writing career. And he's also a caring husband and father. This book takes place in a time of major change. The McCarthy investigations claim some of Nell and Charlie's friends. And they live in fear of a knock on the door. But this isn't really a novel of political awakening. Instead it's about a secret. We know early on that Charlie has died and that Nell has discovered something terrible about him. The book dissects the aftermath of this marriage.
It's not giving too much away to say that the central lie of the story is a deeply moral and political one. A decision Charlie makes early in his career leads to one betrayal after another. When Nell finally learns the truth, she has to rewrite their time together. Even if you are annoyed by Nell's sometimes willful ignorance, what I loved was her ability to defy a society where the most that the working woman can hope for is grudging tolerance. She describes the life of navigating a man's world not as equals but not as mere appendages either - where women are bound by having voices that were in meeting somehow out of the range of male hearing and by the ability to make coffee.
There were times when Feldman was perhaps too wedded to her historical research. But even so she manages to make these familiar decades seem immediate. In the last third of the book a colleague passes Charlie's diaries along to Nell. And he becomes the narrator. He explains his behavior. These pages protested a little too much and for me they lacked the originality of Nell's voice.
So while this tale that's part love story, part mystery and part political thriller is one I would heartily recommend, I can't help but think it would've been best told exclusively from Nell's point of view.
SIEGEL: The book is "The Unwitting" by Ellen Feldman. It was reviewed by editor and critic Ellah Allfrey.
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