Effortless Writing in Debut “You Are One of Them”
The unstudied workmanship of Elliott Holt’s first novel “You Are One of Them” is enviable. The story bobs and weaves through time, somehow evading the nasty snags of convenient plot twists while neatly tying off all its threads. It reads so well that I was able to finish it in a single sick day. You should make the time to do the same.
Holt begins her novel with a degree of mystery and sustains the shrouded tone through to the finish, sidestepping sensationalism and delivering a twist. “You Are One of Them” is a Cold War story and Holt captures the fearful tensions of the era in her protagonist’s skittish development. Sarah Zuckerman views the world in terms of defection and every loss is a betrayal. Her sister’s young death sets in motion the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s subsequent obsession with nuclear doom.
In 1982 Sarah and her best friend Jenny write letters to Yuri Andropov asking him to spare the world from nuclear war. Jenny’s letter is answered by the Russian premier and the young girl is launched to fame as the picture-perfect American face of peace keeping. She and her parents take a widely publicized tour of the USSR and Sarah is left behind wondering why Jenny’s letter was chosen and not hers. The young friendship withers and shortly after, Jenny and her family die in a plane crash. Sarah spends the years of her adolescence puzzling over her loss, defecting from her present.
When Sarah receives an email in 1995 from a woman in Moscow implying that Jenny’s death may not be what it seems, Sarah grasps at the alternate reality. Her attachment to her childhood friend is perplexing even as it is recognizable. Jenny and Sarah were not well-matched and the reader resists Jenny’s attraction. But early attachments always carry weight and Sarah has had little else to invest in. Holt addresses the complexities of memory in her text with a light touch, playing with the tricks of hindsight and the rewrites that love demands.
There is a grey sobriety to the tone of Holt’s novel, which makes the moments of brightness sparkle with even more brilliance. Sarah is a loner but her isolation coheres with the uneasy culture of the reborn Russia. Her ventures into Moscow are mediated by expat communities or citizens with hidden agendas. Living in Moscow she continually bumps up against the presentation of the past and the faltering reality of the present, the two polishing each other’s sides into a lethal edge. Sarah is a watchful narrator, as wary of deception as she is hungry for other possibilities.
Holt subtly adjusts the kilter of her novel’s focus, the shift unapparent until you find yourself looking steeply downward, surprised at the ground you’ve covered. “You Are One of Them” is about perceived and real threat and considers the ways in which your past does and does not shape your future. It is about girlhood and friendship, but it is also about motherhood and the motherland. Holt manages these shifting perspectives with the grace of an expert cinematographer, bringing larger truths into focus while allowing Sarah to linger in Moscow in the limbo of the unknown.