You Are One of Them
By Elliott Holt
I love to travel and am drawn to books about expats and people who explore the world. You Are One of Them is partially set in Moscow, in the early 1990s, and appeals to my wanderer side. I spent time in the 90s in what was then Czechoslovakia, and the lives of the American expats living in Moscow in this book remind me of my experiences in Eastern Europe at that time.
You Are One of Them tells the story of Sarah Zuckerman, an American woman whose best friend from childhood, Jennifer Jones, became famous after writing a letter to Yuri Andropov at age 10 asking him for peace. Not only does the letter get published in a Russian paper, Andropov replies and invites Jenny to the Soviet Union for a visit. Jenny writes a book about her trip, but her life ends tragically when she and her parents die in a plane crash a few years later.
After graduating from college, Sarah receives a letter from Svetlana, a young woman Jenny met on her trip to the Soviet Union. Svetlana lures Sarah to Moscow with the possibility that Jenny might not actually be dead. The book narrates the years Sarah and Jenny were friends growing up and then captures Sarah’s time in Moscow—where she spends three months. She lives with an American journalist who is the friend of a college friend and meets Svetlana.
Holt has an amazingly strong narrative voice. The book is told from Sarah’s perspective, and she is whip smart, a bit awkward, the only child of divorced parents, raised by an agoraphobic mother. The book deftly captures life in the US during the Cold War in the 80s and the early post-Cold War years in Moscow in the 90s. Ultimately this is a book about female friendship and how girlhood friendships stay with us as we become adults. There is also an abandonment theme to the story. Sarah not only lost Jenny, she also had an older sister who died, and after Sarah’s parents split up, her father moves back to the UK, and she barely sees him. Sarah is a young woman coming to terms with childhood loss as she figures out where she fits in the adult world.
If you are looking for a good summer read, or something to read while you travel, I recommend this book. I read most of it on a train ride to and from DC a short while ago. It is engrossing and satisfying, with a subtle sense of mystery.