Tag Archives: You Are One Of Them

AT THE BOTTOM OF EVERYTHING by Ben Dolnick

So… I just read the second of two books in the space of two months about: 1) kids growing up in DC who 2) had a best friend in 7th and 8th grade but 3) then they grew apart, and 4) then the former best friend disappeared after the estrangement, and 5) then the main character, in their late 20s, went abroad to an exotic locale 6) to try to find that former best friend and resolve the issues that plagued them as adolescents.

What are the odds of that?


The first book was Elliott Holt’s You Are One Of Them (reviewed here), and the second was At The Bottom Of Everything by Ben Dolnick.

(Of course, I spent the first half of Dolnick’s book wondering if Holt and Dolnick have read each other’s books and if they are friends and huge fans of each other’s work. I did some Googling and learned that they recently were on a panel together, so I am going to assume that they are at least each familiar with the other’s book).

At The Bottom Of Everything is about Adam and Thomas, boys who became inseparable best friends in middle school. Thomas is an odd kid, smart but socially inept and not interested in mainstream social activities, and when Adam starts to become more popular, the two end up growing apart. But before that happens, the boys are involved in a freak accident with terrible repercussions. They keep the accident a secret, and the book is really about the different ways in which they each carry the burden of the secret. After ten years of silence between them, Adam ends up traveling to India at Thomas’ parents’ request, to find him and bring him home. What happens in India is an incredibly intense experience that forces Thomas and Adam to reconcile their feelings toward each other and try to find redemption.

At the Bottom Of Everything was a page-turner. Dolnick is one talented writer, that’s for sure. He’s incredibly observant and perceptive, and he made me laugh, gasp, wince, and nod in recognition, page after page.  Like this passage: “Adult friendship is all talking and laughing and bickering and planning; teenage friendship can be more of a joined solitude, like oxen yoked together. The not-having-to-do-anything can be the whole point.” Or this one: “I’m not sure there’s any emotion worse for you than jealousy. Anger, sadness, pity – even at their worst, they have a kind of purity to them; you’re suffering but you’re righteous, the world is failing to cooperate. But jealousy, oh, what a shameful and wincing performance. You’re not just suffering; you’re afraid of being exposed for your suffering.”

The book is not perfect. The India part went on too long, and the figuratively and literally cavernous climax was a bit much for me.  Like in You Are One Of Them, I preferred the first half of the book, which focused on the boys’ friendship and the roots of what drove them apart. I understand why the second half was necessary; I just didn’t find it as successful as the first.

Once again, I loved the DC setting. The accident happened about three miles away from where I am sitting right now, and being able to picture it so vividly made the plot turn that much more powerful for me.

I have so many questions about how Dolnick thought up this story, and how he then researched and wrote it. The anguish of Adam’s guilt, not just psychological but physical too, was so beautifully communicated in this book – I want to know how Dolnick accomplished it.

I really enjoyed At The Bottom Of Everything, just as I liked You Are One Of Them. Both got a little lost in their second halves, but ultimately, the rides were well worth it.

 

Q&A with Elliott Holt, author of YOU ARE ONE OF US

Earlier this summer, I read You Are One Of Them, by Elliott Holt (reviewed here). I really enjoyed it, and got in touch with Holt to see if she’d be willing to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. She agreed, and gave me some excellent answers to my questions. It was a very satisfying Q&A – thanks so much to Elliott Holt for taking the time to respond to my questions!

Q: I have a theory that some authors deliberately set their books in extremely remote settings or earlier time periods in part so that social media and technology won’t play a role in their characters’ lives. Do you think that the hyperconnected-ness of today’s society, and the fact that many of us communicate not by words or actions but by texts, posts, and tweets, has complicated modern fiction?

It’s true that technology has changed the way we communicate and those changes are starting to infiltrate literature. (I’ve read quite a few novels featuring email, for example.) I don’t think that technology has complicated fiction, but there are certain plots that would no longer work. (Nowadays, if a bad guy cuts the phone line in a horror story, the potential victim could just call the police from her cell phone.) But even with all these new ways to connect, we humans still fail to communicate sometimes. And the tension between what we say and what we mean is still rich material for fiction to explore. There’s still subtext and longing. There will always be subtext and longing.

Q. You basically nailed my middle school experience in You Are One Of Them (minus the friend who went to Russia). What is it about that time of life that provides such fertile ground for fiction?

I think that a lot of what girls experience between the ages of 10 and 13 is universal. No matter where you grow up or go to school, you’re dealing with a lot of the same issues: puberty and cliques, the need to belong and the struggle to define yourself. That age is full of conflict (internal and external). And conflict is essential for fiction!

Q. The ending of You Are One Of Them is a bit controversial, because it could go one of two ways. Do you have a strong opinion about which way it goes?

Was it all a brilliant con created by Svetlana? Or was Sarah’s best friend really a defector? I know the answer. As the author, I had to decide. I know what happens in the end. But this book is a character study of the narrator, Sarah. And Sarah decides to finally let go of her obsession with her friend and to let go of the paranoid  “us versus them” Cold War mindset. So although the surface mystery is not fully resolved (though there are plenty of clues), the book still has resolution in terms of Sarah’s character. And the book is about the way we believe what we need to believe, so readers can choose to believe what they want.

Q. I loved your descriptions of Russia in 1995. I was there for the first time two years ago and found some similarities with your 1995 descriptions – no one smiling, for example. When is the last time you lived in Russia, and does it differ much from the Russia Sarah visits in search of Jenny?

I first visited Russia in 1993, then went there again in 1996. Then I lived there from 1997-1999. I haven’t been there since 2000, though I’m dying to go back. I love Moscow. It’s an amazing city. I know it’s changed a lot since I lived there in the 1990s, but I’m sure there are some fundamental aspects of Russian culture that will never change.

Q. I read an interview in which you said that “there seems to be nostalgia for the Cold War, which is probably about longing for a time when our enemy was easy to place”. I remember the gloomy Cold War 80s, with the threat of nuclear war and the nightmares that came from watching “The Day After”. Do you think we live in a scarier time today?

I don’t know if it’s scarier, but it’s scary in different ways. When I was a kid, my peers and I were really worried about nuclear war. Now I worry about chemical warfare and about cyber warfare. And about various doomsday scenarios involving global warming. There’s always something to worry about if you’re the worrying kind.

Q. I am amazed that You Are One of Them is a debut novel. When can we expect something new from you, and what will it be about?

I’m very superstitious, so I never talk about what I’m working on. I’m writing a couple of short stories right now–I love short fiction–and then I’ll get back into the next novel. I wish I could tell you when the next book will be done, but these things are hard to predict!

YOU ARE ONE OF THEM by Elliott Holt

I just finished a book that I liked quite a bit. It’s not perfect, but I thought the good was very good.

It’s called You Are One Of Them, by Elliott Holt. I picked it out because I liked the premise: Sarah Zuckerman, who grew up in DC in the early 80s (like me!) had a best friend named Jenny who lived across the street. One day, they decide to write letters to Yuri Andropov to ask for peace between the US and the USSR. Jenny’s letter is singled out by the Russian government, and she is invited to the USSR as a child ambassador to help thaw relations during the Cold War. Upon Jenny’s return to the US, she becomes a celebrity, leaving Sarah behind. But within a year, she and her family have been killed in a private place accident en route to a speaking appearance.

Many years later, Sarah receives an email from someone in (now) Russia, claiming to have met Jenny on her visit in the 80s, and suggesting that Jenny is still alive,  having defected to Russia. Sarah has to decide whether to pursue the investigation into what really happened to Jenny and, in so doing, address her unresolved issues about the demise of their friendship.

[Incidentally, about 30 pages in, there were details in You Are One Of Them that were so familiar to me that I went online to see where Holt went to school. Sure enough, she went to my small, DC private school, which explains part of why this book appealed to me so much.]

So there are basically two parts of this book – the part about Sarah and Jenny’s friendship, and the part that explores the mystery of what actually happened to Jenny. I loved, loved, loved the first part. The treachery of middle school friendships set against the dark backdrop of the Cold War was perfectly covered by Holt, down to the little notes Sarah and Jenny used to write to each other, the cruelties that adolescent girls visit on each other, and Sarah’s sense of isolation and rejection. I also enjoyed following Sarah into adulthood and seeing how she coped with her deeply flawed family and the insecurities that were ingrained from a young age.

The second part of the book was a little problematic for me. I thought that in Russia, Sarah behaved in ways that were pretty out of character. Some of the postulated theories about Jenny’s whereabouts were overly simplistic and should have had more complexity. And there is the ending itself, which has its own opacity (but which I ultimately admired). It’s hard to address the second part of the book completely without spoiling the ending, so I will leave it at that. If you’ve read it and want to discuss it, email me!

Russia plays a huge role in this book – its history, its transformation in the 90s, and the ways in which its society adapted to Western sensibilities post-Cold War. Holt has a great talent for conveying the effect of the city’s weather, architecture, and economy on the psyches of its inhabitants, whether native or ex-pat.

You Are One Of Them was my favorite book so far this summer. It’s not perfect, as I said above, but I love Holt’s writing and can’t believe this is her first novel. I will be watching carefully – “like KGB, da?” for her next one.