You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

You Are One of Them BY Elliott Holt. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.
The cover of You Are One of Them

Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them is a novel of grand and intimate scope, artfully balanced between the political and personal. The book’s narrative satisfies on multiple levels, as both a compelling character study and a psychological thriller with a ferociously intelligent ending. It also captures the tenor of the 1980s and ’90s, portraying, in detail that will resonate with readers who grew up in the era, the waning tensions and paranoia of the Cold War, the illusory trappings of American prosperity (Greed is good, sayeth Gordon Gekko), and the early rise of the Internet and other technologies that made the world so much smaller than we had ever imagined.

Against its evocative ’80s backdrop, You Are One of Them presents a story about the intense yet fragile intimacy between two young girls. Sarah Zuckerman and Jenny Jones are best friends in a Washington, D.C., suburb. They are girls who can feel both terribly safe and terribly vulnerable from within the comforts of their middle-class existences. They are naïve enough to believe that they can change the world while understanding there is a clearly defined “us versus them,” and that as Americans, they have to be ever vigilant about the so-called enemy without considering that the enemy could be in their midst.

The book gracefully toggles between global and personal relationships. Sarah and Jenny’s friendship is depicted as a force as complex, fraught, and unknowable. As individuals and as friends, the girls are territories unto themselves—territories that may, despite their best intentions, be foreign to each other. This is an idea that ultimately drives the novel: that you can never really know the people you love most.

This seemingly idyllic friendship takes an unexpected turn when the girls decide to write letters to Soviet politician Yuri Andropov, advocating for peace between the United States and the USSR. Andropov replies to Jenny’s letter, and she becomes something of a celebrity, traveling to the USSR as an ambassador for peace, and garnering all manner of media attention. The girls’ friendship shifts irrevocably. They fight, and before they can reconcile, Jenny and her parents are killed in a plane crash. Sarah is left with the phantom energy of a friendship she once held, tempered by the bitterness of betrayal and youthful ambitions denied.

Years later, Sarah finds herself in Moscow, trying to make sense of a place she once feared, trying to find some way back to her childhood friend, trying to figure out where she belongs in the world. Holt brings melancholy to the details of a stranger in a strange land, particularly one with so much history. “Throughout history,” Sarah reflects, “Russian leaders had set out to make people feel small and powerless, and my insignificance as an individual was especially clear to me as I stood there.” In many ways, Jenny is a woman in perpetual search of her significance—to her loved ones, to herself.

When a new friend, Svetlana, offers Sarah a seductive opportunity to reconnect with her past, Sarah learns that the friendship she once treasured might be both more within and ever beyond her reach than she ever thought possible. This opportunity leads to a masterfully ambiguous ending, one that, like good endings do, answers some questions but leaves others provocatively unresolved.

Holt is an elegant prose stylist reminiscent of James Salter—a writer who understands that a strong novel is not only about big themes but also beautiful sentences. From beginning to end there is neither a word nor an idea out of place. And it doesn’t feel forced: She is a writer in control of her craft without being overly in control of her craft.

The novel’s only real weakness is the prologue. Prologues are often problematic because they imply that there is a context the reader will need in order to synthesize the story to come; they give the impression that perhaps a story hasn’t been started in the right place. In You Are One of Them, the prologue is wildly unnecessary, and vaguely ominous sentences such as “Or maybe her luck just ran out” cheapen the beautiful novel that follows.

Despite this misstep, this is a book that demands notice not only for its scope and ambition but also for its deeply affecting meditation on loneliness and isolation. Holt never surrenders to sentimentality by offering Sarah the entirety of the satisfactions and companionship she seeks, or by giving the reader a similar satisfaction of a happy ending. Instead, much of Sarah’s ennui is starkly defined and unending, even as she comes to certain conclusions.

As an adult, considering the ways she has been abandoned throughout the course of her life, Sarah says to her shrink, “Maybe Jenny’s death wasn’t deliberate, but she betrayed me before she died, and besides, when you’ve had as many people disappear from your life as I have, you start to wonder if you’re defective. You start to wonder if there’s somewhere better to go.” That somewhere better is a place Sarah spends a great deal of time and energy trying to find. What she ultimately finds may or may not be better but it is somewhere, and it is a place that allows her to both reconcile her past and face her future. That Sarah is able to find this place, despite the ambiguity of You Are One of Them’s ending, is a mark of Holt’s power.

Roxane Gay is the author of the novel An Untamed State (Grove) and the essay collection Bad Feminist (Harper), both forthcoming in 2014.