You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin; 304 pages; $26.95).
When two school-age girls have a falling out, the clash can seem like the outbreak of world war. Both sides have many friends, allies who declare war simply because of loyalty to one party. Think of them as NATO versus the Warsaw Pact. There is no détente, and things can quickly get ugly. Each girl deploys secret agents to spy and gather intelligence on the opposing foe. Undercover surveillance reveals the weaknesses of each adolescent, failings that must be exploited at any cost. Mutually assured destruction is a given. If one of the girls tells a deep, dark secret on the other, retaliation will be swift and massive. In this electrically charged, DEF-CON 1 environment, nuclear war becomes a real possibility as the chances of disarmament plummet. This terminology recalls the blackest, iciest days of the Cold War—the early 1980s—the setting of Elliott Holt’s smart and suspenseful debut You Are One Of Them.
Hostile young girls are not that much different from warring nations. Best friends Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones write letters to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982. Incredibly, the president replies, but only to Jenny’s missive, not to Sarah’s. Andropov invites Jenny and her family to the USSR on a good-will tour. Jenny becomes a celebrity practically overnight but never mentions Sarah’s letter or the fact that it was all Sarah’s idea. Say good-bye to that friendship. A new cold war between former best friends thus commences.
Then, in 1985, Jenny and her family die in a plane crash. The news devastates Sarah, sending her into a tail-spin. Because Sarah thinks she is defective since those closest to her end up leaving or dying (her sister, her father, her best friend), defectors from the Soviet Union like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Vitaly Yurchenko, and Oleg Gordievsky fascinate her. After college, Sarah decides to visit Russia for the first time. She hopes to find a position in journalism in Moscow.
Sarah, though, has another reason to visit Moscow. She receives a strange letter from a woman who spent time with Jenny during her tour of the Soviet Union and alludes to the possibility that Jenny did not actually die in the crash. Here’s where the story turns exciting and interesting, especially when Sarah comes face to face with a woman who may or may not be Jenny.
Holt’s ending is intentionally ambiguous. However, I preferred the vague ending to a clearer conclusion in this instance. I liked not knowing. I liked closing the book and wondering how one can navigate a course for truth when secrets and lies cloud the way. Of course, the novel’s indefinite finale may frustrate some readers, but I appreciated the enigmatic mystery.
The character of Jenny is loosely based on Samantha Smith. In December of 1982, Smith, a ten-year-old girl from Manchester, Maine, wrote a letter to Andropov. Smith asked the Soviet premier if he planned to mount a nuclear war against America. He replied to her, and, at his invitation, Smith toured the Soviet Union the next year. Her picture was everywhere, and she even became a television actress. This little girl was America’s youngest ambassador, but her life was cruelly cut short in 1985 when she and her parents were killed in a plane crash.
Set in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s when Star Wars was on the minds of moviegoers and presidents alike and in Moscow during the
1990s when the world map was constantly being drawn and redrawn, You Are One of them is fast-paced to reflect that fast-moving world. Because the author lived in Moscow from 1997 to 1999, her writing radiates with intricate ease as Sarah navigates Moscow. Holt is thus able to transport us to a strange, new, and uncertain Russia—a country that was once just as perplexing as the mystery that is at the heart of You Are One of Them.
Holt excavates the familiar terrain of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and deception in You Are One of Them, but her penetrating gaze and knowing voice propel her tale far past other novels. You Are One of Them shares the feel of The Americans and is just as addictive. I was glued to every page of Holt’s novel. I would have endured a nuclear winter to spend more time with these striking and well-illustrated characters…well, maybe.