One of fiction’s greatest powers is its ability to allow writers and readers the opportunity to examine the question of “What if?” In The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor revisits a pivotal moment in American history and asks: What if Ethel and Julius Rosenberg—the only Americans to ever be executed for spying during the Cold War—were actually innocent?
To explore this idea, Cantor transports readers back to the time of Truman and Eisenhower, an era when fears of smallpox and atomic bombs ran rampant and all things Russian were eyed with deep suspicion. Here we meet Millie Stein, mother to a young son named David who refuses to speak and a Russian husband whom she does not love. Due to David’s unusual behavior, Millie is rejected by the other mothers in her neighborhood and made to feel that his issues are the result of her own failures. When an enigmatic psychologist enters her life with claims he can help David and a chance meeting with her neighbor Ethel (herself the parent of a difficult child) sparks a genuine friendship, Millie feels she’s been thrown a lifeline. Initially both of these relationships are a boon to Millie, but when the FBI turns it attention to her husband and her neighbors, she soon finds herself unsure whom she can trust and forced to question her own loyalties.
It’s a tricky business blending fact with fiction, but Cantor—who imagined the life of Anne Frank’s sister in her previous novel, Margot—manages to do so beautifully in The Hours Count. Although Millie is Cantor’s creation, she is brought brilliantly to life and her emotional struggles as a young mother in a loveless marriage provide an interesting lens through which to view the historical events of the novel. Millie doesn’t know who the villains are and we must watch as she lets her heart guide her. This ambiguity and uncertainty feels true to life and results in a story that is filled with plenty of surprises, where the stakes feel impossibly high and stolen moments mean the most. A domestic spin on a spy thriller, The Hours Count is an affecting and effective piece of historical fiction that begins with readers asking “What if?” and ends with them wondering “What might have been?”