So what do I do now? I spent the last two days either on a plane, or with this amazing debut novel. I was just in Kansas City with a bunch of booksellers, hosting this really nice dinner, and one of them asked me what I was reading. After I got done hyperventilating and they revived me, I told them about the plot of You Are One of Them.
There is a lot to love in this story about a teenage spy. Back in the 80s’ I wrote Ronald Reagan a letter asking him to stop the threat of nuclear war, begged him actually. I got back a packet of information about how government works. Sarah Zukerman and her best friend Jennifer Jones did one better, they each wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov to ask him for peace. Jennifer gets a response from Yuri and becomes a world hero for trying to barter peace. Sarah is left to tell us the story of what happened after. But that’s not even the best part. Well, that’s a lie, it is pretty good. Sarah’s sister dies in the opening pages of this novel, and her parents splinter immediately. I found this part of the story to be so incredibly moving, how her mother is permanently warped by this tragedy, and it hangs on the novel like a dark cloud. Sarah tries to avoid her mother, while longing for the ghost of her father who has disappeared back to his native England. She docks her boat of loneliness into the harbor across the street, where she makes a new best friend in Jennifer Jones. There are so many little kernels of this friendship that will rock your world, especially what’s pinned to the bulletin board. It’s really fucking tragic, but then suddenly makes sense. Cut to ten years later, and Sarah is off to college, Jennifer has definitively disappeared for good, and erased from the book. Suddenly somewhere in Russia she reappears. Or does she?
Holt writes about the 80’s with a kind of ease that will make you long for those days where the world seemed to end, and then it didn’t. When U2 was breaking on the scene, and Sarah confuses their new album calling it November. I have enthusiastically dog-eared this book; every few pages they are these really amazing scenes about Sarah and Jennifer, where Holt describes friendship and childhood so perfectly. Do you remember when you were a kid and there were five hours until it got dark, and you were with your friends, that rush of excitement where you knew you were going to have a great time? That’s Sarah and Jennifer growing up. But then Jennifer got famous. They play hide and seek in the woods, and Sarah is left alone, and finally finds Jennifer, and there is this wonderful line at the end of the chapter about a swing coming to a stop while Sarah stands outside her friend’s house. It puts you right there next to her, so on the nose.
It is hard not to throw bouquets at this book, or make it sound like the best thing since sliced bread. I loved Sarah, and I even liked to hate Jennifer. When Sarah grows up and decides to go off to Russia and chase down a possible lead on what happened to Jennifer, it reminded me of my own journeys to Europe, the shock of coming out of an airport half way around the world, and the disorientation of waking up in a room somewhere far away from what you know. It’s brilliant to watch Sarah adapt to the Russian environment around her, see that world through her eyes. This story isn’t so much about finding Jennifer as it is about Sarah figuring out how to live life without any help, from anyone. This book will fly past you, and I can only say that you need to read it slowly.