Back in the USSR!
First time novelist Elliott Holt coolly takes on the Cold War, the 1980s, and friendships lost in You Are One of Them.

Is the Cold War cool again? Maybe it is. Looking back at paranoid days of red phones, nuclear codes and Soviet spycraft (days I don’t remember, because I was born in the mid-eighties) it does seem kind of intriguing. Kind of romantic. Less dangerous than the threats of today. And ready to be cool again, 30 years later.

Thinking objectively about the narrator of this book, Sarah Zuckerman, I would guess she is a cool customer herself. She likes the Smiths and reading Russian novels. She’s depressed and slightly damaged by an unhappy childhood in Washington, D.C. When she was in 5th grade, a peppy blonde best friend moved in across the street and made it seem all sunshiney for a few years. Then in middle school her blonde best friend got to visit the USSR as a kind of youth goodwill ambassador and became famous overnight. She stopped being friends with Sarah. Then the best friend was killed in a mysterious small-plane crash, her body never found.

The second part of You Are One of Them finds Sarah in Moscow after college, self-discovering and trying to figure out what went wrong with her long-lost best friend, and with all the other failed relationships she’s had, and ultimately with her unhappy family. It’s all very well-crafted in terms of plot and character, but I had a hard time sticking with Sarah. She’s sad. Always thinking about the past. Even her semi-bohemian wanderings in 1995 Moscow seem kind of dull, though I liked the character of her roommate, who moved there to help start Russian Vogue and reminded me of a Sex and the City character.

Probably this book could have used a real romantic subplot itself. Instead, the thriller plot kicks in as Sarah learns more about the real story of her childhood friend’s disappearance. That got me through to the end of the book, but still, I wish there had been some sex. [Insert “Cold War” punchline here.]