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Merle

Merle

You Are One of Them - Elliott Holt This is one of those first novels that promises better things to come. On its own, it’s decent, but not earth-shaking.

You Are One of Them begins with an actual piece of Cold War history: a 10-year-old girl (named Samantha Smith in real life) writes a letter to Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov in 1982, asking for peace. He answers and invites her to visit the USSR; she becomes a media sensation, but tragically dies in a plane crash a few years later. In this fictional version, the celebrity is Jennifer Jones, and our narrator is her best friend Sarah Zuckerman, who also writes a letter but doesn’t get a response. The first third of the book mostly focuses on Sarah and Jenny’s childhood relationship, but the bulk of the story is set ten years later, when Sarah gets a letter suggesting Jenny didn’t really die, and travels to Moscow to look for the truth.

Some of the early publicity pegged this book as a mystery or a thriller, but (to my relief) it’s more literary fiction than either; it lacks the relentless speed of a thriller or the tidy structure of a mystery, and readers looking for either will likely be disappointed. Instead it's an intelligently written novel about lost friendship and about the Cold War and its aftermath (the global and the personal are inextricable here). The writing style is polished and lacking in fluff, and the pacing is smooth. The structure is maybe a bit lopsided, spending what feels like a long time on the childhood friendship before we get to the meat of the story; those scenes might have worked better interspersed with the Moscow chapters. But this is a quick read and kept me interested throughout. Even the ambiguous ending worked for me, though it might not for a mystery reader.

The character development is mixed, and this is one area I expect to Holt improve in future books. Sarah’s narrative voice is strong and distinct, and gives the reader a clear picture of who she is on the inside, but the actual scenes do little to throw her personality into relief. So, for instance, we see a lot of her loneliness and feeling that everyone abandons her, and her intelligence and self-consciousness come through clearly, but she simply tells us that she has trouble making friends because she's too melancholy and complex; we don’t actually see anything to support that. Meanwhile, there are some good moments with the supporting cast--Sarah’s mother in particular is vividly drawn--but for the most part, while they’re not flat, they are forgettable. Even Jenny never quite came together for me. The development of the setting is interesting though, and the author’s time as an expat in Russia comes through clearly.

In the end, a decent book although not a great one, but the writing is strong enough that I will be interested in Holt's next effort. With better characterization, it could be excellent.