Sunday, September 15, 2013

But Are You One of Them?

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
(Penguin, 2013)
Format: hardback via library

From Goodreads: "Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones are best friends in an upscale part of Washington, D.C., in the politically charged 1980s. Sarah is the shy, wary product of an unhappy home: her father abandoned the family to return to his native England; her agoraphobic mother is obsessed with fears of nuclear war. Jenny is an all-American girl who has seemingly perfect parents. With Cold War rhetoric reaching a fever pitch in 1982, the ten-year-old girls write letters to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov asking for peace. But only Jenny's letter receives a response, and Sarah is left behind when her friend accepts the Kremlin's invitation to visit the USSR and becomes an international media sensation. The girls' icy relationship still hasn't thawed when Jenny and her parents die tragically in a plane crash in 1985.

Ten years later, Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a mysterious letter from Moscow suggesting that Jenny's death might have been a hoax. She sets off to the former Soviet Union in search of the truth, but the more she delves into her personal Cold War history, the harder it is to separate facts from propaganda."

Here's what I liked about this book: 

  • Finding, then losing, a best friend in late elementary / early middle school years. The vast importance of who your friend eats lunch with, whose friendship pin she wears, whose ear may be hearing the secrets you told her during countless sleepovers. 
  • The depiction of the Cold War days, Reagan and Andropov and Star Wars and The Day After, from the point of view of a child living through it all. (You should totally watch that clip from The Day After, if only for the 80s hair and clothing. And if you were curled up on the living room sofa watching when the mushroom cloud enveloped Kansas City, I hope it doesn't cause you any flashbacks to childhood terror.)
  • Holt's facility when describing places - the amazing lyricism with which she paints Moscow in the 90s will stick with me for a long time.
Still, for all that, this is presented as a mystery: was Jenny on the crashed plane or was she not? And even at the furthest point of Sarah's investigation, I just never got around to caring overmuch about the answer. It only served to make Sarah an untrustworthy narrator and to dull the effect of the things I mentioned above. Her search through Moscow wearied me. And I don't think Holt's intent was to have her readers grousing at her narrator: "Who cares? Just drop it and get on with, well, anything else, really."

I'm trying to not let the story arc detract too much from the lovely parts of this debut novel, but instead the second half is very much getting in the way of the first half.

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