Thursday, June 6, 2013
Review: YOU ARE ONE OF THEM, by Elliott Holt
Those of us of a certain age remember, at least vaguely, the Cold War. I was in grade school when Ronald Reagan was president and Russia was still the USSR, when we had to know where the bomb shelters were, when nuclear war was a threat we lived with every day. I remember angsty pop songs and TV specials and nervous conversations about what would happen in the event of an attack. It was a scary time to be a kid.
You Are One of Them tells the story of two girls whose lives were shaped by that fraught and fragile time. Sarah's family is already broken when the story starts. Her older sister is dead and her father has left the family for his native England, leaving behind a mother paralyzed by anxiety and a daughter who sees loss and death and loneliness around every corner. She finds consolation and companionship with her neighbor Jenny Jones, a pretty and easygoing girl with picture-perfect parents, the kind of girl to whom life will come wrapped in a bow. Growing up in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War, their lives are stained with political anxiety; Sarah decides to write to Soviet President Andropov to ask for peace, and Jenny joins her. But it's Jenny's letter that Andropov answers, Jenny who gets to go to the Soviet Union and become a celebrity. And it's Jenny who dies under mysterious circumstances, and Jenny whom Sarah goes to find in the new Russia years later.
This novel is author Elliott Holt's first and it's a very well-written and and engaging debut. Personally, being about the same age as these characters, I related to their Cold War upbringing and enjoyed reading a book set in that time. I found the central mystery of the book to be interesting and the execution of it suspenseful and more or less believable. There are plenty of real-life events similar to what goes on in the novel; a little girl named Samantha Smith was asked to the USSR by Andropov after penning a letter similar to those written by Sarah and Jenny, and in recent years there have been various spy scandals that find an echo here. I don't want to spoil the story too much though.
At heart You Are One of Them is a coming of age story about a woman who grows up in the shadow of her dead friend after living in it for a while, and how that woman can or cannot move past that relationship to find herself. Ultimately Holt doesn't give us any easy answers but leaves us to ponder how we live with ourselves when that which defines us no longer exists. Sarah is a melancholy, lonely woman and as one reviewer has noted, the book is shot through with her loneliness. Holt depicts Russia as desolate, a land with little to offer someone seeking human connection. The suspense made it hard for me to put the book down; its sadness makes it hard for me to leave behind.
FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore where I work. I did not receive a copy for review from the publisher.