Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Hours Count

Title:  The Hours Count
Author:  Jillian Cantor
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1594633185 / 978-1594633188

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe."

Favorite Quote:  "What surprises me most is the way the days sometimes feel so long and yet the years so short. It's all the hours in between that count."

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were American citizens accused of passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia. On June 19, 1953, they were executed for the crime of espionage - the only civilians ever executed for treason in the US. The left behind two young children. The fact of their guilt - particularly Ethel's - is discussed and disputed even today. Were they guilty? Was she guilty? Were they victims of Cold War fear mongering?

The author has a clear opinion. As the author's note states, "Through fiction, I wanted to reimagine Ethel as a person, a woman, the mother whom I pictured her to be. I can't definitively say what Ethel knew or what she didn't what she did or didn't do, but the more I learned about her and the case and the trial, the more I personally came to believe she didn't deserve to die the way she did."

Jillian Cantor sets up to tell the history of the Rosenbergs through the eyes of a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein. Ethel did have neighbors, but the life of Millie Stein and her friendship with Ethel are pure fiction. The fiction story really takes over the history in this book. This is Millie's story. The Rosenbergs are a part of it but through Millie's eyes and only as they relate to Millie's own life.

Mille and Ethel become friends when Millie Stein moves into an apartment building with her husband Ed and son David. Ed is a Russian immigrant, who comes to the land of opportunity but finds himself in the middle of the Cold War. David is a nonverbal child with special needs at a time in history where a child's special needs are attributed to a lack of caring from the mother. David does not have a diagnosis, but the descriptions indicate an autism spectrum disorder.

Millie is struggling - to manage her difficult husband, to care for her elderly mother and grandmother, to not compete with her sister who seems to have done everything right, and to provide her child an opportunity for growth and an independent life. The first half of the book focuses on Millie and her marriage and on David. The world of politics and allegiances exists but only on the periphery of Millie's life. Her focus is her little world and daily survival.

About half way through the book, the book takes a turn and becomes more of an fast-paced spy thriller. Investigations. Police. FBI. Arrests. Questioning. Secrets. Who to trust and who not to trust? However, we still only see the Rosenbergs story from a distance, through Millie's eyes. The focus remains Millie and the decisions she makes for her own life.

Ultimately, is the book successful in telling the Rosenbergs story? In a way, yes because I find myself doing research to learn more about the case. However, the Rosenbergs are really at the edges of this book. I actually feel that I don't know much about them, and that I am not really drawn into their plight. What I learn about them I learn based on the research I did not based on reading this book.

The book is much more successful in creating Millie's story. She is the one I care about throughout the book much more so than the Rosenbergs. Even before reading the end, I know what happens to the Rosenbergs. I focus on Millie and want to know what happens to her. Hers is the story that keeps me reading and that makes for good reading.

So, my recommendation is to read the book not for the history but for the fiction.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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