The Cold War Is Never Far Behind: A Review Of Elliott Holt’s “You Are One Of Them”


You Are One Of Them
By Elliott Holt
Penguin Press, 340 p.

It will be interesting as time marches on to see how the nearly 50-year-period known as the Cold War will be explained to future generations since it wasn’t a war in the traditional sense. There was actual fighting directly caused or furthered thanks to the two major superpowers of the time (The United States and the Soviet Union), plenty of tension, and tough talk from both sides ranging from President Ronald Reagan’s booming challenge to  Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!,” to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev telling a joke to then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959 that ended with the punch line: “The pessimist says only six atomic bombs would be needed to wipe out England. The optimist says it would take only ten.” Yet the Cold War was less a war, more a lot of maneuvering,  talk, and behind-closed-door actions that went unseen to the public. Today our most popular image of the time is cloak and dagger operations carried out by agents in nice suits, and blustery politicians yelling at each other. And while the spy games of the era still produces plenty of Ian Fleming and John le Carré fans, the Cold War doesn’t captivate our imaginations the way World Wars do, and that would probably explain why the period has not motivated many people to create works of fiction as captivating as Elliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One Of Them.

Holt’s novel, which follows the life of Sarah Zuckerman in the 1980s and 1990s, has many different layers to peel off: divorced parents, the jungle known as school, and trying to find oneself; all of these things can and have made great novels, but what Holt’s book gives us is something different in that it is filled with Cold War-era intrigue and paranoia. We get to know about Sarah’s life, about her mother who bears the scars from a bad marriage and the death of a child, about her absent father, and the sense of sadness and loneliness that the narrator feels from all of that. Sarah carries the invisible weight around with her throughout the novel; you can’t always see it, but you know that it’s there, and it gives You Are One Of Them a unique emotional edge.

“My mother mapped out scenarios, calculating the reach of radioactive fallout if the blast hit Kansas City, say, or Washington,” Holt’s narrator tells us. Eventually she adds, “At the kitchen table, the hanging lamp created a tunnel of light under which she envisioned doom.” Zuckerman and her mother, both residents of one of the world’s capitals of Cold War tough talk, Washington, D.C., can’t escape the reality that a nuclear war might be on the horizon, a fear shared by millions of people all across the globe at the time. Those fears of the unknown, that any second an attack could take place which would trigger a response and eventually wipe out civilization, was a very real thing, and it’s something that Holt smartly realizes, but doesn’t quite exploit. The uneasiness is there, but it is used to build on the intrigue in the story. We meet Sarah’s childhood friend, Jennifer Jones, who writes a letter to the Soviet premier (an idea originally concieved by Sarah) in 1982, asking for peace between the countries, and eventually receives an invite to the Kremlin and the fame that comes with being a young symbol of diplomacy, becoming “a touchstone for nuclear anxiety.” As the Cold War slowly marches off to an end, so does the friendship between the two girls, culminating when Jennifer and her family die in a plane crash a few years later, and that’s where the intrigue really begins.

While the first-half of You Are One Of Them is set during the last years of the Cold War, the second part of the book, set in the 1990s, is filled with the remnants of the earlier era as Sarah is lured to post-Soviet Russia by a mysterious phone call as to the true fate of her childhood friend. Secrets are slowly revealed, Yeltsin-era Russia is explored, and Sarah goes on a fact-finding mission that would almost fit perfectly in a Cold War thriller, except the mission is to find out if her friend’s death really happened, and if it didn’t, why she and her family would fake it. What we get is Sarah navigating her way across a new Russia, spending the time many about to finish college take to reevaluate their lives, to take a deep breath for the real world they’re about to enter, and living it up; Sarah is more focused on finding answers about the friend she long-thought dead in an unfamiliar land, while she is also struggling with plenty of personal conflict that Holt doesn’t draw to the surface, at least in a way where the story becomes muddled. That’s what makes You Are One Of Them such a complex and beautifully written book about secrets and relationships, as well as the things we do for closure.

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