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'You Are One of Them' is part coming-of-age, part thriller

Elliott Holt delivers a first novel that is a surprising hybrid, combining female friendship and the Cold War.

June 07, 2013|By Alexander Nazaryan, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author Elliott Holt and the cover of "You Are One of Them."
Author Elliott Holt and the cover of "You Are One of Them." (Rebecca Zeller / The Penguin…)

Back in 2007, Elliott Holt was the recipient of a curse: New York Magazine deemed the young writer one of its "Stars of Tomorrow." In Manhattan's claustrophobic literary world, expectations were immediately raised and daggers surely sharpened.

Holt's debut novel, "You Are One of Them," has finally arrived, and it turns out to be an odd hybrid of bildungsroman and thriller, borrowing as much from the coming-of-age stories of Judy Blume as it does from the spy novels of John le Carré. The result is a book that, like its teenage heroines, does not quite know what it wants to be.

The premise is promising: Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones grow up across the street from each other in the 1980s in a posh section of Washington, D.C. While Jennifer comes from a prim Midwestern family, Sarah's has been fractured by the death of her sister and the infidelity of her father. She is thus left alone with a mother whose anxieties are channeled into nuclear disarmament activism.

Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I appreciated Holt's skillful depiction of the fearful American mind-set of the time. So will younger readers with no memory of duck-and-cover lessons. But those looking for a mature Cold War novel will cringe at all-too-frequent simplistic assertions such as "Russia, with all its quirks, was funny." That sounds like grade-age Sarah, but it actually comes from the smart young journalist narrating the novel.

To be fair, Holt is not a historian (though her novel is based on a true story). Her goal is to portray the world from the vantage point of a maturing young woman, and it is on these grounds that she is most successful.

The novel's conflict centers on a letter the girls write in 1982 to Yuri Andropov, then the Soviet leader, asking him to halt the arms race. Eager for positive press, the Soviets invite Jenny — based on Samantha Smith, the girl who famously corresponded with Andropov in 1982-83 — to tour the USSR as proof that theirs is a land of unity and peace. I can assure you that it wasn't, but the American visitors are easily fooled by the Potemkin villages erected for their visit.

The photogenic Jenny returns to the United States as a celebrity, "a touchstone for nuclear anxiety." She and the awkward Sarah drift apart and, before they have a chance to reconcile, Jenny and her family are killed in an airplane crash.

This was the teenage Smith's fate in real life too. But if you've ever read a beach mystery, you know that an airplane crash is never just an airplane crash.

Indeed, several years later, right as she is about to graduate from college in 1995, Sarah is contacted by a Russian woman named Svetlana who appears to insinuate that Jenny is alive and living in Boris Yeltsin’s democratic not-quite-paradise. Off we are to Moscow, "a furtive city [where] people were as closed and guarded as fists," in Holt's clever turn of phrase.

The search for a long-lost friend is a reliable device, one that is enhanced by the setting: a Moscow awash in cash and not too concerned about law, order or truth, a boozy town where disputes were — and still are — a little too often settled with a bullet to the forehead.

The problem is, Holt never pulls the narrative strings tightly enough. I kept wanting more: more on Jenny's mysterious father, more on Sarah's dislocation, more on the lives of the expats with whom Sarah surrounds herself, like the third-rate journalists who have convinced themselves that a new beginning is just a vodka shot away. Holt's hurried and imprecise language suggests a writer rushing to finish this book. That's pure speculation, but there is little else to account for sentences such as, "It was amazing to me that Russians and Americans still defined themselves in opposition to one another.... The Cold War was over, but the habit of drawing lines in the sand was hard to break." Few writers do their best work with their first novels. This may well be Holt's case.

Nazaryan is a writer in Brooklyn.

You Are One of Them
A Novel

Elliott Holt
Penguin Press: 304 pp., $26.95 

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