FICTION: A young American woman living in Moscow searches for the truth about her friend, whose correspondence with Yuri Andropov made her an unlikely celebrity a decade earlier.
A third of the way into Elliott Holt’s debut novel, “You Are One of Them,” narrator Sarah Zuckerman observes that she “felt like a minor cast member exiting the stage door, ignored by the crowd waiting for the ingénue.” That feeling of being overlooked is rooted in one very tangible scenario from her own history. Specifically, Sarah is recalling how, in the early 1980s, she and her friend Jennifer Jones wrote letters to Yuri Andropov, then the head of state of the Soviet Union. Jennifer’s letter received a response, catapulting her into celebrity; Sarah’s went seemingly unnoticed, and her relationship with Jennifer ultimately frayed. But that sense of feeling diminished has a greater application as well: Over the course of Holt’s novel, she shows how Sarah’s life, as well as Jennifer’s, is overshadowed by geopolitical machinations, celebrity culture and familial schisms — all as out of Sarah’s control as the ever-present threat of nuclear war that her mother constantly dreads.
“You Are One of Them” is set largely in two time periods: Sarah’s childhood in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, and her post-collegiate life in mid-1990s Moscow, where she journeys in search of answers to questions about Jenny’s life. Both cities and decades are neatly rendered. Holt knowingly evokes the effect that Cold War paranoia and news of Olympic boycotts can have on a child and realistically portrays the older Sarah’s tours of a post-Communist Moscow, where capitalism summons up Soviet nostalgia to sell cola and the never-flown Buran space shuttle is displayed as a monument. Less effective are the few glimpses we get of Sarah’s life since then; the version of her narrating this story seems less clear than either of her past selves.
The story of the connection between Sarah and Jennifer begins like almost any other: first as neighbors, then as friends, followed by a distancing as social circles shift. Except that here, larger forces intervene: specifically, Jennifer’s celebrity, which leads to tragedy. It’s a clear-cut story right up until the point at which Sarah learns that her assumptions of truth may have been entirely mistaken. The global threats and players that had loomed in the distance suddenly become far more intimate, and the ubiquitous nesting dolls that Sarah encounters serve as a neat metaphor for something much more ambiguous.
It’s that ambiguity that lends the conclusion of “You Are One of Them” its power. The resolution to Holt’s novel brings together all of the elements raised in the preceding pages, from saber-rattling to childhood betrayals. It’s a dramatically satisfying ending that invokes those things that we can never know — and as such, it’s a reflection of a haunted period of history, of lessons learned in doublespeak that may well have rooted themselves too deeply in our collective minds for us to fully recover.