The Hours Count: A Novel

by Jillian Cantor

(Penguin/Riverhead, $26.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Jillian Cantor grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Arizona, but she also likes to inhabit the past. The author of award-winning novels for teens and adults, she is best known for her historical novel, Margot, a “what if” exploration of what the life of Anne Frank’s sister would have been like if she had escaped to America, which was a Library Reads pick.

What is this book about?

Cantor combines a retelling of the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who became the only Americans executed for allegedly spying for Russia during the Cold War, a case that is still argued about today, with a look at motherhood and friendship in America during the 1940s and ‘50s. She creates the character of Millie, a Lower East Side of New York City neighbor of the Rosenbergs. Millie has a toddler son, David, who would today be diagnosed as on the autism spectrum; she befriends Ethel and also becomes close to Jake, a psychologist who surreptitiously helps her with her son. Millie’s husband Ed is a Russian immigrant, and as the anti-Communist paranoia of the era grows, entangling the Rosenbergs, Millie begins to wonder about his political beliefs as well. Cantor keeps the tension and suspense at a high level, while also exploring how difficult life could be for women at that time.

Why you’ll like it:

The book offers a sensitive look at women’s friendships, as well as a re-examination of the Rosenberg case through the perspective of a friend, albeit a fictional one. And it reminds readers that political paranoia, still with us today, has deep and intransigent roots in the U.S.

Here is some of what Cantor told about how she came to write the book.

“. . . There were many things that surprised me as I began researching, mostly because before I decided to write the book I didn’t know very much about the Rosenbergs or what had really happened with their case. I had a vague recollection of learning about them in a high school history class, the notion that they were spies, who’d been executed in the 1950s. But as it turns out, they were the only civilians ever executed in the U.S. for “conspiring to commit espionage.” And the more I read about what happened to them the more convinced I became that Ethel was innocent, and that she had not deserved to die.

“I did a lot of research about motherhood in the 1940s and 1950s, and my Millie’s life as a mother came as a result. I read about the “refrigerator mother” theory, which was popular around 1950 and which blamed autism on the mother being “too cold.” I made Millie’s son David (what we would today consider) autistic, as I wanted to imagine what it might have been like for a woman, a mother, at that time to deal with an autistic child. And I wanted Millie and Ethel to connect over their joys and troubles as mothers.

“Though The Hours Count is a novel about what happened to the Rosenbergs, it ultimately became for me — at its core — a story about friendship, about what it was like to be a wife and mother in the 1940s and 1950s. And this is where fact and fiction collided and intersected, as I imagined and reimagined both women’s roles as mothers and friends.”

What others are saying

Publishers Weekly says: “Cantor’s suspenseful historical novel concerns Millie Stein, a lonely mother in late 1940s New York who befriends her kind neighbor Ethel Rosenberg, who later will be executed with her husband, Julius, after an FBI witch hunt at the height of anti-Communist paranoia. The women bond upon discovering that they both face challenging parental situations: Ethel’s son, John, is difficult and off-putting, while Millie is often vilified because her two-year-old David has yet to speak. At a gathering with the Rosenbergs’ friends, who have Communist sympathies, Millie encounters psychologist Jake Gold, who offers to treat Millie and her son in exchange for being able to write about them in a paper. Jake is kind and patient with David, and shows interest in Millie as a person. Millie finds herself falling for Jake as her Russian husband, Ed, tries to send David away and demands that she conceive another baby. Cantor deals deftly with themes of friendship and motherhood, but doesn’t fare as well when it comes to romance. The book is at its best throwing surprises at Millie, beginning when sweet-talking Jake suddenly vanishes and Millie suspects that Ed might be hanging with a nefarious crowd. Cantor keeps the reader guessing about various characters’ motivations right up until the climax. While the love story is the weakest element in this narrative, the novel is notable for its affecting depiction of motherly love and the skillful way it captures the suffocating air of the McCarthy era.

Says Library Journal: “The author of Margot, a reimagining of the life of Anne Frank’s older sister, this time focuses on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans put to death for espionage during the Cold War. Narrating the couple’s story from the perspective of Ethel’s friend and neighbor who takes in the two Rosenberg sons after their parents’ arrest in 1950, Cantor combines mystery, romance, drama, and espionage into a spellbinding and fascinating page-turner that also gives readers insight into this chapter of American history.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “. . . she turns her attention to the Rosenbergs, who were executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage. As she writes in her Author’s Note, after reading about the case and the couple’s lives, Cantor became convinced they were victims of America’s vicious hunt for communists in the 1950s. Her view is represented by sheltered, lonely Millie Stein, the Rosenbergs’ neighbor in a Manhattan apartment house. Millie is married to Ed, a taciturn Russian immigrant who barely acknowledges her existence, except for sex, and who ignores their autistic son, David. Millie is devoted to the boy, guilt-ridden when the family doctor insists she’s caused his behavior by her coldness. Isolated with David, starved for affection, it’s no wonder she falls for warm, handsome Jake, who befriends her at a gathering hosted by the Rosenbergs. He tells her he’s a psychotherapist with experience helping children like David, and Millie agrees to meet him, with David, twice a week. Although Ethel warns her not to trust him, and although Millie repeatedly suspects that he’s lying, she fantasizes about running off with him, leaving her boorish, elusive, and secretive husband. In a rare gesture of independence, she agrees to a tryst at a cabin in the Catskills and, after one night of chastely described sex (buttons are slowly undone), finds that she’s pregnant. Millie’s naiveté about politics is barely believable, and when the Rosenbergs are accused of being traitors, she knows in her heart that they’re innocent: Ethel is such a good mother; Julius, such a loving husband. Plot twists tease the reader into wondering who’s telling the truth, who’s working for the KGB or the FBI, but despite its historical context, the book reads like a predictable, although engaging, love story.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of The Hours Count.

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