The Americans with Russian girlfriends–“pillow dictionaries,” they called them, aware that these lanky, mysterious women were far better-looking than anyone they’d touched back home–began to sound like natives. They were peacocks, preening with slang…A little bravado goes a long way toward hiding the loneliness. You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet.
― Elliott Holt, You Are One of Them
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is a love song of a book: a love song to foreign lands that always seem impossibly perfect until you get there; a love song to a different time when we were younger and everything around us looked so much bigger; a love song to the beliefs we have when we are children, and the hope that we can grasp tightly onto even as adults.
Narrator Sarah had a best friend growing up, a perfect best friend, named Jennifer Jones. They grew up in Washington, D.C. together during the paranoid madness of the Cold War. Sarah’s mom is neurotic, charting nuclear fallout on huge maps spread along the dining table, while Jennifer’s parents are so idyllic they seem quaint.
The girls write letters to the Soviet Union asking for peace, and suddenly Jennifer Jones (just Jennifer Jones, not Sarah) is famous. Her letter has been published in the Soviet papers and answered by their president. They’ve asked her to come to the USSR as an ambassador of sorts. As Sarah watches from home, Jennifer is made America’s darling. And, as Sarah watches from home, Jennifer and her parents crash into the ocean on a small plane, never to be seen again.
Then, years later, Sarah receives a mysterious e-mail from Russia. A woman who knew Jennifer as a child, who hosted her when she visited, asks, “Would Sarah come? Doesn’t she have questions?” She will, and she does. Sarah packs up, and is off to Russia, searching for a truth she isn’t sure exists regarding her long lost friend Jennifer.
If there is a single strong point in Holt’s writing, it is paralleling the disorienting experience of childhood with the disorienting experience of wandering a new country alone. In both situations Sarah seems totally lost and at the mercy of those around her, almost adrift in a sea of people she needs to lean on but may not be able to trust.
In the best way possible, You Are One of Them reminded me of The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, one of my favorite books when I was younger. Both books very much have this “Let me sit you down and tell you what I do and what I do not know about my past” feel to the narration, which creates a feel of unraveling a web of dark secrets and drama with the narrator as they explore their own memories.
- Elliott Holt’s site (elliottholt.com)
- First Chapters: ‘You Are One of Them,’ by Elliott Holt (longreads.com)
- Daily Review: You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (bookforum.com)