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What We’re Reading: You Are One of Them

2013 May 23

What We're Readingyou_are_one_of_themYou Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (The Penguin Press, May 2013)

We’re teaming up with Magers & Quinn Booksellers to host author Elliott Holt reading from her debut novel, You Are One of Them at the bookstore on June 4 at 7:30 pm (mark your calendars!). Through this process, we were lucky enough to be able to interview Holt and get a behind-the-scenes look at her approach to the novel, among other things. And of course, we devoured the book.

The story follows two middle school friends Sarah and Jennifer, from Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. The political environment is frosty at best, with the Cold War and nuclear warfare on everyone’s mind, including the two friends. The two girls’ home lives couldn’t be more different: Sarah’s single mother fuels fear with her neurotic tendencies and obsession with nuclear war, while Jenny’s picturesque American family seems to have it all. Sarah and Jenny both write to Yuri Andropov in the USSR, asking for peace between their countries, but their friendship starts to fracture when only Jenny’s letter gets a response. Not only that, Jenny is then invited to the USSR arguably as a form of propaganda for the country, to experience the welcoming and peaceful image the world power was trying to portray. Their fractured relationship is left unresolved when Jenny and her parents tragically die in a plane crash shortly after her return. Sarah carries the weight of her absence into adulthood.

Flash forward ten years, when Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a woman named Svetlana in Russia, claiming that Jenny is still alive. Sarah quickly packs up, despite her mother’s nervous titterings, and sets foot in Moscow, a city that is murky and always changing, with the truth always taunting from around the next corner. She searches for the truth about Jenny in what becomes a dangerous, desperate spiral of hope.

Holt is an expert at creating the aura of fear, mystery, and doubt that permeates the story. Part of this is due to her apt setting descriptions of both Moscow and D.C. (which Holt considers to be two of the novel’s characters in our interview with her, and I agree—they are living and breathing cities). Holt herself has lived in both Moscow and D.C., which informs her ability to make both of places glitter with reality and familiarity, such as this car ride from the airport after Sarah arrives in Moscow:

“Do you mind if I open a window?” I said. ” I get carsick.” The numbing exhaustion of jet lag combined with a mounting headache from all the smoke in the airport made me feel like I was going to throw up. I cranked open a window, but the air that rushed in wasn’t fresh. I coughed.

“Terrible air quality here,” said Corinne. “Whatever you do, don’t go running outside.”

What struck me on the forty-minute ride into the city was how run-down Moscow was. It was hard to believe that a country with such exhausted infrastructure was ever considered a superpower. The margins of the city were dotted with sad Soviet apartment blocks, trapped in a 1960s version of the future. The avenues were dirty—not with litter, but with actual dirt, as if the entire city needed a good scrub. And our car was one of the few on the road that wasn’t leaking exhaust. We were surrounded by ancient Ladas, some of them seemingly stapled together. “This is where the world’s cars go to die,” said Corinne.

Holt also writes Sarah’s first person narrative in a way that is innately personal, human, and intimate. Not only do we watch an innocent childhood friendship crumble, but we’re also let into Sarah’s darkest and most vulnerable moments. She is repressed by her mother, neglected by her father, feels left behind when Jenny leaves for the USSR, and constantly searches for closure when Jenny dies. We also get an up-close look at Sarah’s more questionable moments, when her obsession with Jenny gets the best of her, when petty jealousy takes over, or when her search for the truth fringes on over-zealous. Holt doesn’t let us pull away from the most realistic moments, where we’re not quite sure if we agree with Sarah’s actions or her impulses. Instead, she leans into the moment, bringing us closer. One such defining moment in the book is the following confrontation with Svetlana, who wrote the letter to Sarah asking her to come to Moscow:

“You said I should come to Moscow to learn the truth,” I said.

“Ah, truth. You Americans love truth.” She leaned back in her chair and cracked her neck. “I think it is the favorite word—after freedom, of course. You want the truth, and you ask for it like the eggs you order for breakfast. Today I want my truth sunny side up! And tomorrow hard-boiled. And then sometimes it is scrambled. And you congratulate yourself for ordering this truth, because you think asking for it is what matters. But what is truth? Pravda? No, Pravda is a newspaper. We understand that there is not one truth. There is your truth and my truth and yes, your Jennifer Jones’s truth.”

“She’s not my Jennifer Jones.”

“No? You act like it. She is your obsession.”

“I’m not obsessed with her,” I said. “She was my friend.”

Sarah’s rising obsession, and the stark, sometimes violent environment of Moscow lend the novel a dark undertone throughout, placing the reader alongside Sarah in a constant state of uncertainty, right up until the final pages of the book.

Holt has previously published mostly short fiction, making this debut full-length novel an impressive one. Her short fiction has won a Pushcart Prize and was runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. If you’re from Minnesota, you may have heard her name recently as the judge for Paper Dartsshort fiction contest. Meet her in-person on June 4, and nab some free letterpress bookmarks, printed with love by yours truly!

What other authors make main characters out of their settings, thanks to attention to detail and reality? Can you think of another book that brings the reader deep into the character’s vulnerable moments?


Psst: Happy Memorial Day weekend! Because we plan to be outside somewhere, grilling good eats and imbibing homemade wine (and we hope you will be, too!), we will not be posting a Three Things writing prompt on Mon, May 27. Fret not, we will get back to our regular schedule with a What We’re Reading review on Thu, May 30!


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