Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: October 20th 2015
Lately, I’ve fallen into a literary rabbit hole of fiction about the 1950s, which is interesting as it’s a time period I’ve never paid much attention to, but is popping up all over the fictional world. The Hours Count is Jillian Cantor’s novel about one of America’s darkest times of political intrigue—when the hunt for Communists meant it seemed difficult to know who was a friend and who a possible enemy. For Millie Stein, a young woman moving into her family’s first apartment of their own with her husband, Ed, and small son, Ethel Rosenberg seems like a likely candidate for a friend. But as the couples’ lives overlap and Millie’s own life becomes increasingly complex, she finds herself drawn into situations she never anticipated.
Cantor takes the inflammatory subject of the Rosenbergs and overlays it with the more intimate, but no less compelling story of Millie, a first generation Russian Jew who marries a man she hardly knows who is a new-to-America Russian. Even New York City was not a big enough melting pot at the time for this to be inconsequential and as the novel progresses her husband’s secretive nature gives rise to more questions than answers in Millie’s marriage. Her disconnect from him is exacerbated by the fact that their two year-old son, Daniel has yet to speak and he sees the boy as defective and unworthy of his attention. Millie’s efforts to find answers lead her to a doctor she meets at a party at the Rosenbergs. As this man unlocks her son’s mind he raises even further questions about Millie’s own life and what is happening in the world around her.
Even as the Rosenberg’s situation escalates The Hours Count maintains an air of detachment that feels incongruous with the seriousness of the subject and yet is actually consistent with the historical facts from the time—namely, that Ethel never spoke out for herself or implicated her husband. Instead, the emotional brunt of The Hours Count is borne by Millie, who is dealing with a child she cannot reach and a husband she does not love or trust. Through her Cantor relays both the burden placed on women to be a certain type of wife and mother and the political tensions of the times. Millie is increasingly frantic to understand what is happening in both her life and to her friend Ethel and to do the right thing but is largely powerless. Despite knowing the outcome for the Rosenbergs, Cantor splices these forces together in such a way that as the novel reaches its conclusion there is no certainty that what has happened is right or just.