Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: "You Are One of Them" by Elliott Holt

Those of us who were culturally aware during the 1980s may remember the story of Samantha Smith. She was a young American girl who wrote a letter to then-Soviet Union leader Yuri Andropov during the height of Cold War tensions, asking if he was planning to start a nuclear war with the U.S., and asking for peace. She and her family were ultimately invited to be Andropov's guests in the Soviet Union, where they spent two weeks on a media tour, and Smith became a media darling on both sides of the world. Smith was a peace activist and had just begun an acting career when she and her parents were killed in a plane crash in 1985.

Smith's story is the basis for Elliott Holt's intriguing and well-told You Are One of Them. In this book, however, it is insecure, needy Sarah Zuckerman, fueled by her mother's growing fear of nuclear war, who decides to write a letter to Andropov, only to have her idea copied by her best friend, perky Midwestern transplant Jenny Jones.

Jenny's letter is the one the media and Andropov get hold of, and while she becomes the media darling and ambassador for American children everywhere, Sarah is left in her Washington home, pining for her friend, both resenting the attention her friend is getting and feeling relieved it wasn't her letter that Andropov responded to. And when like Smith, Jenny and her parents die in a plane crash, Sarah is left to wonder whether her friendship would have lasted had Jenny lived (it was already deteriorating given Jenny's new fame), and feeling alone and aimless.

Ten years later, Sarah receives an email from Svetlana, a Russian woman who was Jenny's escort during her trip to Russia. Svetlana claims that Jenny's death may have been a hoax, simple propaganda, and encourages Sarah to come to Moscow to find the truth. Still somewhat aimless, still reluctant to let anyone else in since Jenny's death, Sarah travels to post-perestroika Russia, where she sees more of the everyday struggles of the Russian people and culture than Jenny did years ago. And as she tries to determine whether she will ever know the truth, she also tries to finally move on with her life after so long.

"I've come to understand that some people are suns that pull others into their orbit," Sarah said.

But where do you go when your emotional sun disappears? And much like in nature, can people flourish without that sun? You Are One of Them is a compelling (if somewhat improbable) story of loss, insecurity, young friendship, and finding one's self. Holt doesn't whitewash her characters' flaws, which makes them both more and less appealing at times, but you are driven to continue more because you want to know what ultimately will happen than because you have sympathy for Sarah.

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