The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor
Gripping from the beginning, this novel addresses many issues with life in that first decade after World War II ended. Told from the perspective of Millie Stein, the novel opens the night of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg‘s execution. The novel then jumps back in time to 1947 when Millie first met Ethel. New to Knickerbocker Village apartments in New York, Millie is glad to have a fellow mother as a neighbor. Since her son, David, features many of the traits we now know as autism, Millie doesn’t get out and about often and is glad to have Ethel to talk to. Ethel’s children also serve as David’s playmates.
Millie fears she is not a good mother to David, something that drives many of her actions in the novel. Part of this stems from how he husband, Ed, treats his family and his desire for a “normal” child. Furthering the divide, Ed is a recent Russian transplant to America and Millie was forced into an arranged marriage with this communist. There was never any love. Millie soon starts taking David to see a therapist, for whom Millie learns to trust and their relationship becomes something more.
Throughout the book, there is a fear of communism and the atomic bomb. Millie realizes her husband’s leanings but tries to stay away. However, Ethel has an activist past and between both, Millie must deal with many related issues. Her worst fear is the Russians having the atomic bomb. Another trend was the fact Millie feared if Ed had his wish for another child fulfilled, Ed would make David disappear. With this in mind, Millie takes active steps to prevent the occurrence and thus Planned Parenthood is introduced.
When the world comes crashing down on both Millie and Ethel, each in their own way, what will happen?
My main three thoughts when I completed this novel were:
- Wow, just wow.
- I wanted to cry.
- I can’t believe one book touched, and touched well, on so many social issues of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Cantor opened the novel with a hook that lead readers to want to know what was coming next in Millie’s life. She then places the reader in Millie’s shoes. Readers will feel Millie’s fears, struggles, and heartbreak as she journeys through these years. Not only will readers gain an insight to living in this era, but also the things often not discussed, such as contraception and dealing with disabilities. And the fears of atomic research and communism are vividly, and probably accurately, depicted. Cantor masters all of these processes with skill. For comparison, the first few chapters of the second book of Jane Smiley’s recent trilogy, Early Warning, (review typed and forthcoming) also touched on the Communism and atomic research. While the fear was present, it took a backseat to Frank and Arthur’s related secret agent-type work for the CIA.
Over all, a masterfully written novel. Can’t wait to read the copy of Cantor’s Margot, which I recent purchased used. I wanted to read it when it was first released, but the library copy went missing the first time it was checked out!
For a nice insight to why the author picked this topic for her novel, check out this piece on the Penguin Librarian’s Den website.
10/23/15: Two things I initially forgot to include (it’s been a busy week!):
Do you think you will read this novel? If so, please share you thoughts afterwards. With the many issues it addressed, I’m sure this will be a popular book club pick. Also, do you have any recommendations for similar books?
My review is based on an advanced reader copy from the publisher.