Saturday, January 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor

I’m working on that library book pile!

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor caught my attention with its jacket copy: "On June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiring to commit espionage. The day Ethel was arrested, in 1950, she left her two young sons with a neighbor and never came home to them again. Brilliantly melding fact and fiction, Jillian Cantor reimagines this story through the life of a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein, who grows close to the Rosenbergs. . ."

The 1950's never seemed all that interesting to me before, but maybe as the decade is becoming more historical and less recent past, I’m starting to wonder more about events that took place during those years. The Rosenberg trial is particularly fascinating, so I had great hopes for this book.

The story is really about Millie. A lonely, frightened, young Jewish woman who married the wrong man for all the wrong reasons, Millie is the mother of an autistic toddler. Back then, the diagnosis was obscure and treatment options were nonexistent. Davey is not talking, and the doctor Millie takes him to see blames his oddness on Millie. If she were not a bad mother, if she expressed her love better, Davey would be normal. Throughout the course of the book, it is made clear how ridiculous this doctor is, yet how pervasive such views are.

Millie meets another young mother in her apartment complex. Ethel Rosenberg also has a troubled son, though it’s less clear what is wrong with John. None of the other children want to play with him either, and Ethel is also isolated, but not to the extent that Millie is. Ethel has a loving, supportive husband, while Millie’s husband, Ed, is a grim, sulking, vodka-swilling Russian who only married her, really, to get sons. Ed is disappointed with the child he has; in fact, he pretends Davey doesn’t exist, and puts continuous pressure on Millie to give him a normal son.

So, when Millie meets a handsome, kind, gentle psychotherapist at a rare party at the Rosenbergs’, and this man, Dr. Jake Gold, offers to help with Davey for free--in exchange for permission to use the results in a paper he’s working on--Millie can’t help but say yes. Ed would never approve, so she keeps it secret.

Millie keeps a lot secret from Ed, but he keeps secrets from her, too. Millie’s sole friends are Jake and Ethel, and the two of them don’t get along.

Millie’s difficulties in her marriage, her difficulties with her son, and her growing attraction for Jake form the core of the story. She and Ethel interact and help one another out with child care, but I never got the sense that their friendship was that deep. They didn’t actually know each other very well.

Things fall apart for Ethel and Julius. It’s no spoiler to say the two are arrested for selling atomic secrets to Russia. Millie, who is tarred with guilt by association, manages to stay clear but at great cost to herself. The book’s focus is so strongly on Millie and her confusion that it feels as though the Rosenbergs are peripheral to the story rather than central.

Overall, it’s a fine romantic adventure, full of secrets, mystery, and some suspense, but for me, it didn’t accomplish what I had hoped to get out of the book, which was more of a picture of what the Rosenbergs went through.

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