Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Hours Count, by Jillian Cantor

Riverhead Books, ISBN 9781594633188, October 2015

Millie Stein is a young mother living with her husband Ed and two-year-old son David in Knickerbocker Village in New York in 1947. They're on the eleventh floor, and their down-the-hall neighbors are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Millie and Ethel become friends. When Ed, a Russian immigrant, loses his job over the loyalty oath now being pushed, Julius hires him at his own company, Pitt Machine.

Ed is a cold and inattentive husband, and Millie envies Ethel her warm and loving relationship with Julius--but he and Ed are moving in the same communist circles.

This is a fictional account of the Rosenberg spy case, seen through the eyes of a neighbor struggling with her own marriage, her own child (who is apparently autistic, though that's not a word much in use in 1947), and her own issues. She and Ethel become friends, close in many ways, and mutually supportive even when there are secrets and strains, as well.

Millie has spent her life to this point being the younger, less-attractive sister, the one who got matched up with the son of a friend of her parents, the wife who produced a "defective" son. She's a bit naive, and wants to think the best of everyone. That gets increasingly challenging, as it becomes clear that Ed is lying about some important things. There's also the rising anti-Russian feeling, and the growing fear of communists and of the atomic bomb. Through the late forties and early fifties, as she endures a pregnancy, a miscarriage, and another pregnancy, and the growing awareness of secrets around her, she also experiences people she knows being arrested and charged with terrifying crimes, as Ed disappears and reappears, and the arrival in her life of Dr. Jake Gold, a psychotherapist whom she meets at a party Ethel and Julius throw--though Ethel says they barely know him.

As events march along, the reader knows what's ultimately coming, but Millie is slow to realize. Even how information gets around is different; the internet is decades in the future. It's a big moment when Ed brings home a television even bigger than the one her sister Sudan has; this is exciting new technology, and both silly game shows and news reports tame by modern standards but scarily immediate in the 1950s have a big impact.

This story is all about character, and a view of the Rosenbergs from a different and rather sympathetic angle. Whether the Rosenbergs were really guilty, and whether they were both guilty, was a subject of lively debate for many years, and Cantor has come to he view that Ethel, at least, was innocent. I don't think whether you agree or disagree is important to enjoying and appreciating the novel. Millie is a good character to know, naive and imperfect, but always trying to do the right thing by her children and by others around her.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via Penguin's First to Read program.