Our story begins on November 22, 1963, when we meet Charlie and Nell Benjamin, poised for an ordinary day, living the writer’s life in Manhattan. But nothing about this day would be ordinary. Grief, both the country’s grief and her own, would overwhelm Nell for the foreseeable future.
We are then swept back in time, to college years, and to how Charlie and Nell first met. We are exposed to what happened to them during the McCarthy years, and how that era felt to writers and intellectuals with liberal leanings, and we can experience the dark and malevolent shadow of evil that lingered for years.
They were a couple for whom writing was a way of life and even though their choices tested the conventional roles of their time, the two of them, even after the birth of their daughter Abby, seemed to be coping. Their idealism kept them going, even when life was difficult.
But in the pivotal moments after Charlie’s mysterious death, bits and pieces of who he really was began to come to Nell from various sources, including a televised piece that suggested some unethical funding for the literary magazine they both loved. How did the secrets and lies change who they were and what they contributed? Did the secrets change who they had been, or is there another way to see it?
When Nell writes a piece about what she has learned, readers react in interesting ways. Some applaud her, while others suggest that Charlie was just doing right by his country. “Others railed against him for undermining the American system and warned that the road to tyranny was paved with means justified by ends.”
In the end, Nell comes to her own conclusions that allow for the imperfections in others, the ambiguity of ideals, and holding onto what remains. A person could focus on the transgressions and misdemeanors or zero in on the “glue that held you, no matter what.” The Unwitting: A Novel was a thoughtful journey through a time in our country and in the life of one family. Memorable. 4.5 stars.