You Are One Of Them
Female friendship, cold war tensions and a mysterious death form the backbone of Elliott Holt's debut novel, You Are One of Them. Based on the true(!!!) story of Samantha Smith, a young American girl who wrote to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov in 1982 to ask for peace. Andropov wrote back, and Samantha visited the USR as a "peace ambassador." Three years later, Samantha died in a plane crash at age 13.
Elliott takes Samantha's tale - fame at the height of cold war tensions, dying tragically young - and spins it into a mystery of cold war spies and defections. You Are One Of Them focuses on Sarah Zuckerman and Jenny Jones, two 10-year-olds in Washington, D.C. in 1982. They both decide to write to Andropov, but only Jenny gets a response and an invite to the Soviet Union. Three years later (like Samantha), Jenny dies on a plane crash with her parents. The entire story is told from Sarah's POV; she is a likeable narrator.
The novel then fast-forwards to Sarah's graduation in 1995, when she moves to Moscow. And this is where the story really thrives: in the descriptions of Moscow. I felt like I was there, living among the ex-pat community, trying to make sense of post-Cold War Russia. Upon her arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport:
I emerged from customs into a room of cold, leery eyes. Moscow was a furtive city. People were as closed and guarded as fists. Their faces hardened against possible scrutiny. The crowd lapped the door, waiting for arriving family members and friends, sizing up each passenger through a film of cigarette smoke. Being watched made me jittery, but the stares passed through me like X-rays. I was inspected and shunted aside. I wasn't the one they were looking for. (120)
The novel's strengths lie in the descriptive prose, the narrator, and the compelling story. The weaknesses were that the end was waaaaay to rushed and the character of Jenny was never really flushed out. However, was an enjoyable read (if a bit predictable?). Rating: ★★★