Elliott Holt’s output prior to this terrific debut consisted of a number of short stories, one of which won the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2011. For years she worked as a copywriter in glamour spots such as New York, London and Moscow. And while ad agencies rarely function as farm teams for the literary majors, the witty, suspenseful intelligence of You Are One of Them suggests Holt has what it takes to join the handful of successful novelists—Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and Dorothy L. Sayers among them—who proved themselves exceptions to the rule.
The novel begins on a summer’s day in 1980 when eight-year-old Sarah Zuckerman’s soon-to-be best friend Jenny Jones moves into her suburban Washington D.C. neighbourhood. Jenny’s life seems ideal: her earnest, open-vowelled Midwestern parents with their intact marriage, her bright, clean home with its enviable pool. In contrast, the main feature of Sarah’s dusty, tomb-like house is the fallout shelter her disarmament-obsessed mother built in the basement. Sarah’s father left a year ago, unable to cope with the emotional fallout of Sarah’s older sister’s death by meningitis.
Vaguely alarmed by Sarah’s mother—her divorce, her odd behaviour—Jenny’s mother treats Sarah like a stray in need of nourishment; it’s she who sends cupcakes to the school on Sarah’s birthday. These Joneses aren’t possible to keep up with, so Sarah fantasizes about moving in with them instead.
As time goes by, however, Sarah discovers an incipiently cruel edge to Jenny’s blonde winningness, her easy power. On one occasion she abandoned Sarah in the dark woods during a game of hide-and-seek; on another she tried to coerce Sarah into using a Ouija board to summon her dead sister.
When the girls are ten they write to Yuri Andropov, general secretary of the USSR, to petition for peace. Though the letters were her idea, Sarah receives no reply; Jenny, an invitation from the Kremlin to tour the Soviet Union. The trip, and her ensuing book deal, make her a media sensation.
But Jenny’s luck didn’t hold; it’s now been a decade since she and her parents were killed in a plane crash off the U.S. coast, their bodies never found. Though the girls’ friendship was already on the rocks when Jenny died, Sarah nevertheless enjoyed some short-term fame as the dead girl’s best friend. At the time Sarah is narrating the story, in the mid-90s, however, Jenny Jones has been reduced to a historical footnote.
This threatens to change when a mysterious email (though it being the mid-90s, all email seems mysterious) lands in Sarah’s inbox. A woman named Svetlana, who met Jenny when she went to the USSR, seems to be suggesting her death was an elaborate hoax. Details await Sarah in Russia.
Holt’s depiction of Moscow is assured and amusingly dour. Svetlana, Sarah discovers, is a near-caricature of cool Soviet inscrutability, unapologetically mangling her metaphors (“they are thick as burglars”) as she blows cigarette smoke in Sarah’s face. She belittles Americans as naïve, fat and uncultured while sharing her plans to use her ad agency job as a springboard for a move to the U.S.
Like Jenny, it’s Svetlana who calls the shots, deciding when and where the two women meet. She also has a habit of disappearing. When she does, Sarah hangs with her roommate’s friends: a group of young expats fast-tracking their way to post-Glasnost disenchantment via vodka and sex.
Is Svetlana a master manipulator or a loyal friend seeking justice? Holt builds enough suspense to reduce Sarah—and us—to a state of hand-wringing agitation; her appealingly downbeat style maintained right through to the novel’s artful, satisfying end.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor