Those who choose to judge this biography as the product of a writer gone soft on totalitarianism or espionage fail to grasp its true heart. Sebba makes clear her own distaste for communism, and her explicit mission is human rather than political: it is to 'extrapolate' Ethel the woman from the whole notorious, sordid story. In doing so, she brings us a woman, rather like Plath’s heroine, suffocated by the 'madness that incarcerated so many women in different ways in the early 1950s' ... Sebba has dug deep beneath this famous and archetypically male story of spying, weapons and international tensions to give us an intelligent, sensitive and absorbing account of the short, tragic life of a woman made remarkable by circumstance.
... gripping ... While there is no longer any doubt as to whether Julius Rosenberg gave U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, Sebba makes a powerful case for Ethel’s relative innocence ... Although the subject matter is often complex, Sebba’s accessible style of writing enables the reader to grasp how two intelligent, good-hearted people could make decisions that led to their downfall. She also unequivocally exposes the malfeasance of the U.S. government with malevolent mischief-makers like Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn riding roughshod over the rights of American citizens. This superbly written facet of history is both outrageous and heartbreaking, and in the end, oddly uplifting.
Sebba provides a compassionate account of Ethel’s character as a wife and mother, dutifully standing by her husband no matter what, and at the same time doing everything in her power to nurture her two boys, who emerged remarkably unscathed by their parents’ ordeal and who honor their parents’ memory in Sebba’s account of their lives ... In this engrossing narrative, Ethel emerges as a doctrinaire Communist, and yet the opposite of the contemporary attacks on her as an unfit mother. Ironically, Ethel conformed to the period’s American ideal of the wife and mother with fealty to her family while she was attacked for being the spy ring leader who manipulated her husband and was thus unfaithful to her role in society and her ties to her kindred.