Written by Elliott Holt
Published by Penguin on May 30th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Literary
"A hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style and a rare knack for balancing the pleasure of entertainment with the deeper gratification of insight. More, please.”—Maggie Shipstead, The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice) "A story about Russia, the United States, friendship, identity, defection, and deception that is smart, startling, and worth reading regardless of when you were born.”—Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine "Holt's beguiling debut… in which there is no difference between personal and political betrayal, vividly conjures the anxieties of the Cold War without ever lapsing into nostalgia."—The New Yorker
Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones are best friends in an upscale part of Washington, D.C., in the politically charged 1980s. Sarah is the shy, wary product of an unhappy home: her father abandoned the family to return to his native England; her agoraphobic mother is obsessed with fears of nuclear war. Jenny is an all-American girl who has seemingly perfect parents. With Cold War rhetoric reaching a fever pitch in 1982, the ten-year-old girls write letters to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov asking for peace. But only Jenny's letter receives a response, and Sarah is left behind when her friend accepts the Kremlin's invitation to visit the USSR and becomes an international media sensation. The girls' icy relationship still hasn't thawed when Jenny and her parents die tragically in a plane crash in 1985.
Ten years later, Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a mysterious letter from Moscow suggesting that Jenny's death might have been a hoax. She sets off to the former Soviet Union in search of the truth, but the more she delves into her personal Cold War history, the harder it is to separate facts from propaganda.
You Are One of Them is a taut, moving debut about the ways in which we define ourselves against others and the secrets we keep from those who are closest to us. In her insightful forensic of a mourned friendship, Holt illuminates the long lasting sting of abandonment and the measures we take to bring back those we have lost.
I’ve had You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt’s debut novel, languishing in the half-invisible TBR Purgatory of my iBooks app for well over two years. I’m pretty sure I bought it not long after Washingtonian and 80’s aficionado Gayle talked about it at Everyday I Write the Book, and I was intrigued.
Ten-year-old Sarah Zuckerman was a bit of a loner until Jenny Jones and her family moved in down the street. Sarah’s parents’ marriage had broken up after the death of her older sister, and her father had moved back to London while she and her activist mother remained in the Washington, DC suburbs. It was 1982, a time when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were running especially high, and the girls decided to write letters to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov pleading for peace. To their suprise, Jenny’s letter received a response, and she and her family were invited to visit the USSR. Jenny’s informal ambassadorship made her a celebrity in both countries, but it strained her friendship with Sarah. While the girls has become rather distant by the time Jenny and her parents were killed in a plane crash in 1985, the death gave Sarah a small degree of notoriety by association as Jenny’s best friend. Ten years later, recently graduated from college, Sarah embarks on her own voyage to Moscow. The Cold War has become part of history, but Sarah has some history to unravel–she’s going to meet a young woman named Svetlana, who recently wrote her to suggest that Jenny might not really be dead after all.
The letter-writing and the death of the letter writer were both inspired by the real-life story of Samantha Smith, who corresponded with Soviet premier Andropov in 1982, became a minor celebrity, and was killed in a plane crash in 1985. The mystery that frames the book, and which occupies most of the second-half narrative, is a product of the author’s imagination.
You Are One of Them held my attention from start to finish. I’m a bit older than Holt’s characters and had longer experience with Cold War mentality and rhetoric than they did, but she evokes the Ronald Reagan “Evil Empire” era vividly and effectively. Perhaps because these elements are so well-done, Sarah’s flashbacks to her childhood experiences with Jenny make a stronger impression than the later scenes in Moscow, and while the mystery is a compelling one, its unfolding is a bit frustrating and its resolution, for me, fell a little flat.
I haven’t yet managed to get around to watching the 1980’s-set spy drama The Americans. but I suspect You Are One of Them that would appeal to fans of that show, and it would make a pretty decent movie in its own right.
YOU ARE ONE OF THEM by Elliott Holt: A screencap from the Prologue