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.