You Are One of Them

What is it to go looking for someone from our past? Are we looking for them or are we looking for someone we once were? You Are One of Them, a first novel by Elliott Holt, captures the vertiginous sense of traveling in a foreign country when her protagonist finds herself in 1990s Russia searching for someone from that other country, the past.

Sarah Zuckerman has moved past the death of her childhood best friend, Jenny-who was invited to the Soviet Union after writing a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov in the early eighties-when she gets a letter from a woman in Moscow who was Jenny's guide years ago. Svetlana suggests that Jenny did not die in a plane crash, as everyone believes, but is alive and well and living in Moscow. With a smattering of college Russian and some vague journalistic ambitions, Sarah goes to find her. She soon learns that the famous Moscow Rules apply not just to CIA operatives: Assume nothing. Never go against your gut. Everyone is potentially under opposition control.

If it sounds like a thriller, it is, but it's a literary thriller that's rich with ambiguity. Holt has an ear for dialogue as well as a gift for simile, and deftly captures a child's perspective. The opening chapters, set in northwest Washington, D.C., capture the intensity of Sarah's childhood friendship with Jenny and her ambivalent longing for the seeming normalcy of her friend's family. Her own mother is an agoraphobic and her father left for London years ago. Yet: "Being with someone else's family can make you feel like a hostage, to their diet and schedule, their idea of etiquette, their variations on board-game rules."

I, too, lived in Washington in the early eighties and thrilled to all that Holt got exactly right (like the mothers driving Jenny and Sarah to the pseudo-punk Commander Salamander boutique in Georgetown for black rubber bracelets). But reading this book made me feel like I knew Moscow-with its overheated Metro stations, its babushkas who scold you on the street for not dressing warmly enough, and the imprecise translations that make exit signs read "get-out." The Russians have American girlfriends they call "pillow dictionaries" and buy empty shopping bags from the designer stores where they can't afford to shop.

Sarah discovers an unexpected kinship between Washington and Moscow. "Both cities loved monuments. Both had tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers and imposing statues of their founding fathers. In both cities there were too many one-way streets." But while D.C. is Sarah's terra firma, navigating Moscow leaves her feeling like she's had too much vodka. After following a woman who might be Jenny onto a roller coaster: "We seemed to hang in space for a moment, like a cartoon car whose driver has not realized he's gone off a cliff."

Has Sarah been pursuing Jenny or has Jenny been pursuing Sarah? Finally, Svetlana promises Sarah a meeting with Jenny at a dacha outside of Moscow, but when they get there it's clear that Sarah's not in Chekhov anymore. Russia is now a "place seething with crime. A place of new money and ancient grudges," of spies, defectors, and con artists. Don't look to the Russians for happy endings; they "start a lot of sentences with 'Unfortunately': They are used to explaining what is not possible."

-Wendy MacLeod, James Michael Playwright-in-Residence, professor of drama

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