Twenty-four hours add up to one tough day for Tom and Helen Foster in “Small Hours.” Between them they have two stressful jobs, twin 3-year-olds, one long commute and no end of financial pressure. If those were their only problems, they might be fine.

In her debut novel, Jennifer Kitses spins an intriguing tale about this couple in particular, but also about the choices people make, and what happens when plans go bad.

Tom and Helen had good jobs in New York City. They bought a house in an old mill town 90 minutes upriver and seemed well on their way. Then the economic crash downsized their good jobs. The bills — for the house, the high-end day care, the new life — did not downsize.

As pressures mount, the couple who used to tell each other everything start holding back. The weight of their secrets is poised to tip them over.

Neither Tom nor Helen is a particularly sympathetic character. Helen has pushed the family to the financial brink in pursuit of her dreams. Tom has kept up a complicated connection with a former lover. When they’re sleep-deprived, as they always are, their judgment gets even worse. Still, the reader pulls for them.

Kitses skillfully builds the tension as our protagonists slide from one crisis to the next. As in a thriller, the reader wants to yell, “No! Don’t do that!” as the hero and heroine proceed to do just that.

The story unfolds in split screen over one day, alternating between Tom and Helen and time-stamping each chapter, starting at 6:20 a.m., when the 3-year-olds rouse Tom from the couch. As the day wears on, Helen finds herself in a confrontation with doped-up teenagers on a playground. Will she de-escalate the situation as a role model should? Tom stays late to atone for major mistakes at work and then, when he’s supposed to catch the train home, he gets invited out for a drink by an attractive co-worker. Will he do the sensible thing? By the 11:20 p.m. chapter, we know the odds are slim.

The late-night action, with Tom lurching from an apartment couch to a bar to his ex-lover’s house, has a kitchen-sink feel to it, as if Kitses, who worked for Bloomberg News, is emptying her reporter’s notebook. But that’s a quibble in a well-constructed narrative. In the final chapter, as Tom and Helen reconnect, Kitses brings the story home with a haunting question: When times get tough, do you stay or do you go?

Even as our protagonists move on with their lives, they leave the reader pondering that question.


Maureen McCarthy is the Education/Topics team leader at the Star Tribune.