Many thanks to Recorded Books for sending a copy of Jillian Cantor’s The Hours Count; a novel that employs just enough fact to seem completely plausible. The premise of this book was very clever, but I must admit that while this was a story that I had greatly anticipated, I found myself somewhat disappointed by the time the novel closed. Having had my fill of the surprisingly bland main character Millie, I was hungry for more information about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Alas, it was not meant to be.
The description of The Hours Count pivots around the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953. Accused of espionage for the Russian government, they became emblems for Cold War spying and McCarthyism. Caught in the cross hairs of an American government that suspected a great many of communist-related activities, the Rosenbergs perished, leaving their two young sons behind. (They were found guilty of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.) While reports indicated that Julius Rosenberg did act as a courier for this transfer of information, there did not appear to be definitive evidence that Ethel was also involved.
History notes that Ethel left her two sons with a neighbor when she was arrested. She never returned. The Hours Count fixes its attention on that neighbor, giving her a name and a voice (such that it was). With creative flare, the author deftly mixes fact and fiction, centering the story on the life (such that it was) of Millie Stein. Millie, in an unfortunate marriage to a revolting creature named Ed, spends almost all of her time in her Knickerbocker Village apartment in New York. She bumps around this apartment day after day with her son David, who refuses to speak. David communicates by kicking walls, and is clearly in dire need of professional help. Millie eventually enlists the expertise of “Dr. Jake,” who claims that he can help her son. The reader will immediately wonder who Jake really is, and in such an age of suspicion, whether he’s there to help David or gain access to the Rosenbergs.
This is where the story left me cold. There was only so much Millie that I could take. It’s not fun to spend a novel traipsing behind a character who’s both hopelessly naive and unbelievably bored. Millie’s whining became exhausting. When she glommed onto her neighbor Ethel for companionship, I thought to myself – thank heavens – now we’re getting somewhere. But this friendship only afforded fleeting glimpses of Ethel and Julius; mere shadows of what was transpiring down the hall.
Come on – I muttered to myself – enough of Millie’s meatloaf – what is Ethel doing??
The novel continues to plod behind Millie and her disastrous marriage. Her growing affection for Dr. Jake was terribly predictable, and her suspicions of her husband were slow in coming. I suppose my main issue was that I wished Millie had been a stronger character. If I can’t have the story I want about Ethel and Julius, then at the very least, please give me a protagonist that I can get behind. Not follow behind…. lamely.
Overall, I can’t say that I disliked the book, because I didn’t. I absolutely wanted to know what happened next, and desperately wanted Millie to find her inner strength. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I was in fact rooting for Millie, and I appreciated the care with which she was written. The author took one seemingly benign character out of the history notes and penned an entire novel. I admire the creativity behind this book, but Millie was not strong enough to carry the weight of the story. She was sweet, but too easily forgettable.
This audiobook was narrated by Rachel Botchan, and I was impressed by how she captured each character. Her tones perfectly embodied the meekness of Millie, the sweetness of the shopkeeper, the aloof nature of Ethel, and the foul character of Ed. Botchan’s skill carried the story beautifully, and I would not hesitate to seek her out again. Well done.
3 stars for The Hours Count.