Friday, February 28, 2014

The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman

(Almost) spoiler-free summary:
I had a really hard time summarizing this one on my own. Perhaps it is because it's impossible to talk about without revealing some spoilers - it is so simple on the surface. My original summary began something like this:

Nell Benjamin is a forward-thinking writer struggling to be heard during the Cold War. Her husband Charlie runs a magazine and, together, they hope to make a dent in the oppressive McCarthyism that still looms over Manhattan. When faced with a personal tragedy, Nell must make sense of both her struggles at home and the struggles taking place in her nation.

And then I was stumped. So, I'm going to post the official summary from the Amazon page, which is very good, but also gives away some key points. So, don't blame me:

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 Unwittingevokes 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.


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The Unwitting is a fairly quick read - the prose is smooth and lyrical, the setting is described lusciously - it just kind of rolled along.  It's always satisfying to read about the thick, polished atmosphere in an executive's office in the 1950s, or the sleek, nervous secretiveness of Soviet Russia. I think that was part of the appeal of this novel - Feldman took settings that already interested me and explained them beautifully. I was hungry to absorb them. The atmosphere and settings were a major strength in this novel.

The characters, however, could use some help. Nell, though we know is an intelligent woman, seemed like she had the wool pulled over her eyes the entire novel. She has suspicions about her husband and his work, but doesn't pursue them. She has these doubts about her husband's professional intentions and still dates his boss, who probably has worse intentions than her husband. She's incredibly stubborn and refuses to see things from her husband's point of view. For all of her feminist ideals, she still seems to disrespect women like Sonia who are attractive and provocative.  For all of her opinions on equality, she seems to have a hard time seeing herself as having been equals with her husband (his crimes are greater than hers). But perhaps that is part of her charm. She's imperfect, she's confused, she's caught in a scaled-down version of what the nation was going through at that time (an identity crisis? Hypocrisy?) I guess your interpretation of her imperfections depend on your reading of the novel. Ask yourself: Are these flaws on behalf of Nell's personality, or are they flaws on the part of the writer?

Additionally, I felt at times that Nell was a bit too invested in current events to have been real. She seemed to be directly involved in so many historic events that I began wondering if I had miscalculated her fame and/or public importance: she dated a man who helped plan the Rosa Parks protest, she was sent to Russia with the actors of "Porgy & Bess" (a role reserved in real life for Truman Capote), she attended the March on Washington, she met JFK (who had conveniently read one of her articles and remembered her for it). Either Nell is a lot more renowned than Feldman let on in the novel, or she was conveniently inserted into these situations by an authorial hand. While it is nice to get a historical perspective and it allows us to orient ourselves in the novel, it just felt kinda heavy handed.

Abby, Nell's daughter, was a nice character and I always enjoyed hearing from her, but, at times, she seemed a little too advanced for her age. I understand that she had two intelligent, open parents and that she attended many civil rights protests, etc. But, if she truly was as intelligent as we are lead to believe through her dialog, why is she so clueless about current events? In some regards, she seemed like a genius beyond belief, and at others, stunted and scarred. Feldman attempts to explain this by saying she inherited her father's wit and whatnot, but, I still felt drawn out of the story at times by Abby's ability to always understand what was happening with her mother and to always know exactly what to say.

Overall, this was a fun, interesting novel. I learned quite a bit about CIA propaganda initiatives in the arts during this tumultuous time frame - Feldman based many events in the novel off of actual history. As I said before, the setting is wonderful and illustrative. The prose digests easily. I would suggest that if you're looking for a study in characterization to look elsewhere, but if you want to get a feeling for time and place, pick up The Unwitting.

Buy The Unwitting March 6th, 2014 in hardback and e-book format from Spiegel & Grau.

Photo and summary: Spiegel & Grau.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

Spoiler-free summary:
Taking place in a single day, Maya Lang's debut novel, The Sixteenth of June explores the relationship between the members of a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Leo is the simplistic, humble son who yearns for "normalcy," which, to him is a life away from the gilt and glamour of his mother's world. Stephen, an academic lost inside literary theory and his own theories about himself, loves Leo's fiancĂ©e Nora, a talented opera singer, with a fierce platonic urgency and met her long before Leo came into the picture. These characters and their strange undulating bonds are first introduced to us on the morning of June 16th due to the death of Leo and Stephen's grandmother, and leave us again that evening at a showy,  pretentious family party dedicated to James Joyce's Ulysses. Billed as a social satire, The Sixteenth of June is an amusing, thoughtful look inside the dynamics of family and the dynamics of the mind of the individual.

.....

I'm going to begin this review by stating that, like many characters in the novel, I haven't actually read Ulysses. Sure, I mean to. I will even go as far as to say, in my best girl scout voice, "I fully intend to read Ulysses." But so does everyone else. Despite not ever having read Ulysses (or any Joyce other than Dubliners) I did not have a hard time understand this novel and picking up the references to Ulysses. In fact, I think not  reading Joyce's most challenging work made reading a novel directly inspired by and descended from it an interesting experience. You will find solidarity with the characters in the novel who haven't read the book, but are celebrating it anyway. You will have to confront yourself with the question, "Why do I want to read that giant thing?"

What I am trying to say is: The plot of Maya Lang's novel stands on its own, but is enriched by references and allusions to Ulysses (and these references can be picked up and understood with a quick skim of the Wikipedia page on Ulysses before reading).

I read The Sixteenth of June while I was reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. They were disturbingly similar. Both involve a love triangle, a best friend figure who is struggling with their religious and sexual identities, pretension in the literary world, mental illness and the way it affects our relationships, wealthy and self-righteous parental figures. They were so similar that I'd continually get confused between the two of them. They even end with pretty much the same conclusion and dynamic between the characters. I decided that the universe was trying to tell me something by bringing both of these books to me at exactly the same time (though I'm not sure what the universe was trying to tell me; Don't go to grad school, maybe? Stay away from the East Coast?) While I am a fan of Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides), I think Maya Lang did it better. Her characters felt more authentic and were genuinely likable where Eugenides's characters were cold and felt like personifications of themes and theories instead of real people. This is impressive considering Lang's story takes place all in one day whereas Eugenides had unlimited time to convince us that his characters were worth reading about.

I thought Maya Lang's description of trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) was accurate and added a nice layer to Nora, who would have been boring and flat otherwise. I also really enjoyed the dichotomy set up between Nora's parents and Leo and Stephen's.

The Sixteenth of June is a sweet, inventive read. I look forward to seeing what else Maya Lang will offer us.

Buy The Sixteenth of June, available June 3rd, 2014 in hardcover and e-book format from Amazon

Photos: Scribner