The Hours Count
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once decreed the necessity of a “willing suspension of disbelief” when reading fantastical literature, especially poetry like his own. I’ve always appreciated his phrase, often applying it to very realistic fiction that requires an occasional leap of faith. Sometimes you need to ignore an implausibility or two when reading an otherwise successful novel. Such is the case with Jillian Cantor’s novel, The Hours Count, which touches on the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the American couple executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage.
Cantor views their lives through the eyes of a next-door neighbor, Millie Stein. The wife of a Russian Jew who travels in the same circles as the Rosenbergs, Millie befriends Ethel. The two women are both mothers of problematic sons (we would call those boys “special needs children” and their issues “learning disabilities” today). Ethel’s husband is tolerant of his son’s difficulties and always affectionate with his wife, whereas Millie’s husband stays aloof and almost disdainful. Likewise, Ethel seems more attuned to Julius’ work, while Millie remains largely ignorant of her husband’s life, either past or present. The two women lean on each other for support, even though Millie seems far more needy than Ethel.
This set-up, creating a fictional narrative voice to articulate a very real political conundrum, works extremely well. So do the late 1940s and early 1950s scenes where the community of Russian Jews interacts with one another. The mothers and mother-in-laws, for example, are priceless. Cantor writes with finesse and grace, too. For the most part, I really enjoyed the conundrums she posed about the families’ involvement in what apparently were undercover activities. We never know, for sure, whether or not the Rosenbergs were guilty or exactly what role Millie’s husband played in the machinations. Cantor poses key questions, and trusts her readers’ acumen.
Where The Hours Count breaks down, for me, are the interludes. Set in 1953 on the day of Ethel’s execution, these mini-interludes punctuate the course of Millie and Ethel’s earlier connections and exchanges. They involve Millie driving to the prison and then posing as a newspaper reporter so she can witness the death of her friend. So we read a convincing story about two supportive women whose lives are turned upside down, interspersed with the notion that an uneducated woman can convincingly talk her way into Sing Sing and then is able to view what was a major mid-twentieth century headline-making deed. Forgive me if I cannot quite suspend my disbelief. Even Cantor, in an Author’s Note, admits this “would’ve most likely been impossible.” I would add that those interludes are unnecessary, detracting more than adding to the story.
I also needed to suspend my disbelief at Millie’s naiveté, especially when a man posing as a therapist is so obviously trying to find out more about her husband’s and the Rosenbergs’ activities. He might as well be wearing a sign spelling out F.B.I., and yet Millie falls for his patter completely. I liked his character, and I thought he added a welcome dimension to the novel, but Millie’s innocence did give me pause.
Despite my reservations, however, I do recommend The Hours Count. Rather than passing judgment on the Rosenbergs and their circle of friends, Cantor allows her story to unfold with all its mysteries intact. I do appreciate novels where the author trusts the wisdom of her audience; I just have to suspend my disbelief (more than once) in this otherwise well-written tale. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Jillian Cantor: Margot; Searching for Sky; The September Sisters; The Life of Glass; The Transformation of Things