Russia is top of mind right now in no small part because of the Olympics and the unrest in Ukraine. So maybe it’s not a complete coincidence that a novel based mostly in Moscow pole vaulted to the top of my to-read pile.
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is a sublime read. I picked it up knowing only it had something to do with Russia. The beginning was so far from what I expected that I almost put it down, but I stuck with it and was rewarded with a generous touch of exciting paranoia and loads of odd trivia about Russians. Who knew they eat ice cream on the street year-round or how the smallest of office supplies exposed CIA spies to the KGB? Not I.
In a Washington D.C. neighborhood during the height of the Cold War, Sarah was just a lonely 10-year-old when Jenny moved in across the street. They became instant best friends. More than friends, Jenny meant the world to Sarah who at the time was still reeling from her father’s abandonment.
Then one letter to a Soviet leader asking for peace changed everything.
I’ve come to understand that some people are suns that pull others into their orbit.
The structure is of this book is non-linear. We really begin in the mid-90s with twenty-something Sarah living in Moscow, questioning the tragic fate of her late friend. A mysterious Russian who claims to have known Jenny has beckoned and Sarah couldn’t resist seeing the country she once feared. To understand why the sting of losing Jenny has such a lingering influence on the person Sarah is trying to become, we go back to their childhood to slowly fill in the old details and uncover mysterious new gaps.
Sarah’s memories of coming of age during the Cold War are surprisingly normal – she considered herself an ugly duckling and the rest of her peers seemed to concur. In college she begins to come into her own, but it’s not until she’s out of her comfort bubble in Moscow that she begins to find out who she is. At first she’s too self-conscious to eat alone in restaurants or wear a brightly colored scarf. Once again, Jenny and her much publicized childhood visit to Moscow now 10 years in the past is often on her mind, especially once she meets up with Svitlana, the woman who befriended Jenny as a young girl and now serves as a cryptic tour guide. On top of questioning the past, Sarah now has every reason to question her present.
And now in the interest of not spoiling intrigue, I’m hushing up about the plot.
It’s easy to love someone you haven’t let down.
On top of being beautifully written with the precision of an obsessive revisionist (there’s not an once of fat), it’s plotted intelligently with weirdly effective bits of dry humor throughout.
Svitlana’s job at a marketing firm staffed by mostly Americans allows the author, who also worked as a copywriter in Moscow, to offer fascinating perspective on how Russians saw them selves immediately following the fall of communism. Their attempts to emulate American-style marketing strategies on a tight-lipped population in which many were still poor results in nuanced anecdotes that add to the story’s overall complexity.
I like that this turned out to be a small story with a big backdrop and not at all what I expected. Sarah’s a compelling, introspective character who finds herself in the middle of a mystery. The ending is so ridiculously satisfying you’ll kind of want to hug Sarah, if only she were real.
In the words of Olympic judges, this book is “Smothered in style!” and “Look at the musculature of the buttocks!” and “What a scorcher!” So far the snowboarding judges are most entertaining.