From Russia With Love: Elliott Holt’s Post-Soviet Coming-of-Age Debut

Elliott Holt. (Photo by Rebecca Zeller)

Elliott Holt. (Photo by Rebecca Zeller)

There’s a kind of childhood friendship that’s a more-intense first love. Not everyone had one, but if you did, you’ll recognize the relationship that organizes Elliott Holt’s debut, a literary thriller about losing the first person who ever knew you.

You Are One of Them takes place in Moscow in 1996, where Sarah Zuckerman has come to solve the mystery surrounding her best friend’s death in a plane crash 10 years earlier. Sarah’s investigation quickly melts into a coming-of-age story, as Phoebe O’Connor’s search for her sister in Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus became a search for her own adulthood. No matter what we say we’re looking for, we’re usually looking for ourselves.

Sarah’s best friend was a magnetic and annoying idealist named Jenny Jones, and it should be said up front that the circumstances of her death are so cloyingly implausible they could only be based on fact, which they are. In 1983, a beautiful 11-year-old named Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov, then president of the Soviet Union, asking him why he wanted “to conquer the world and destroy our country.” Sensing a P.R. opportunity, Andropov replied in Pravda, inviting Ms. Smith to visit the U.S.S.R. There was a TV special, Times coverage and a book. There was also a tragic ending: three years after her trip, Ms. Smith died in a twin-engine plane crash off the Maine coast. This story is at best irrelevant; it’s like an ad between episodes of history. By the time of her death, Ms. Smith had already started to seem like a younger Rachel Corrie, naïve and overprivileged, with good intentions but no clue.

Ms. Holt changes Samantha’s name to Jenny Jones but keeps the rest intact. It is a bizarre choice, to place a precious anecdote at the center of a politically inclined novel, and Jenny’s letter, reprinted in full as an epilogue, is so slight it practically blows off the page:

My mother says that after a nuclear bomb, everything will be dark. She says there will be no sun, so it will get really dark and cold. She says that there will be ashes everywhere, so the world will be gray. Colors will be erased. Everything will die.

Yuck. It’s the written equivalent of taking a bath in dissolved Splenda, so the odds are stacked against Ms. Holt using it cleverly. A little shockingly, she does. Intuiting the connection between the tone of Jenny’s writing and the language of propaganda and Western advertising, Ms. Holt connects a kind of false American optimism to the seedy capitalist texture of post-Soviet Moscow. We’re not supposed to like Jenny. We’re supposed to watch Sarah outgrow her.

When the novel opens, Sarah is a timid student finishing college and nourishing suspicions about the plane crash. Did it really go down by accident? Is there anything to the conspiracy theories about KGB involvement? Before long, a letter arrives from Moscow: “I can tell you many things about Jennifer,” says a woman named Svetlana. “Please write to me.” It’s the kind of invitation you don’t turn down. For the rest of the novel, we trail Sarah through Moscow, intermittently reminded that we’re supposed to care what happened to Jenny (and, often, caring).

You Are One of Them is much more interesting than its kitschy source material in part because Ms. Holt has chosen to render Sarah’s identity formation through the lens of a search for meaningful language, an escape from the kind of cliché that trapped Jenny. “You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet,” Sarah says, and she believes it. “It had never before occurred to me … that somewhere out in the world people were arranging entirely different shapes into words.” She’s in need of reinvention; she wants to drop the shyness and invisibility that shadowed her back home. Her dream is that new words might make a new self.

Ms. Holt gives Sarah a good ear for the intricacies of Russian syntax, the idiom and the funny errors of translation; for readers, these details are a pleasure. Sarah reports that Russians call American girlfriends “pillow dictionaries,” that they pronounce Hollywood “Gollywood,” that “my God” has “an anguish in Russian that just doesn’t translate.” Sarah senses in Russia the promise of a new and confident self; her question is not so much, “What kind of person do I want to be?” as it is “How do I want to speak?” When she enrolls in Russian classes, we understand exactly why.

 Meanwhile, Svetlana, author of the mysterious invitation to Moscow, pursues the opposite project: using language for insincerity and profit—i.e., for advertising. (Ms. Holt, a graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA program, also worked for a time as a copywriter.) Svetlana writes tags that will sell Russians on the pleasures of Western capitalism. Lucky Strikes are “the American dream,” she tells Sarah. “USA is brand.” Her colleagues repeat Pepsi slogans and rank American companies by their date of entry into Russia. It’s impossible to confront “the American dream” without thinking of Jenny, who had an absurd belief in it. Maybe, the reader thinks, Jenny was an export like sodas and cigarettes. Sarah seems to realize it too: right after the Lucky Strike scene, she starts spending time with more expats, gets irreversibly diverted from her fact-finding, meets a guy, and learns the truth.

It’s a small irony that the novel, so creative when considering language, should be somehow conventional in its prose. Ms. Holt slips frequently into a style that could be described as “Nice Writing,” readable but overly well behaved. Suburban streets are “oak-canopied,” loneliness “metastasize[s],” angry people “fire” words, snow and light “soften” landscapes, color “drains” from evening skies, New Yorkers are “fast and unwavering,” this or that is always like a “kaleidoscope,” people describe old photographs, characters comprise cute traits (“When we played Monopoly, she was always the shoe”).  The reader’s questions are provided for her: when we’re supposed to wonder what happened to Jenny, Ms. Holt makes Sarah think, “Where was she? How could she disappear without a trace?”

But as Samantha Smith’s mother said of her daughter’s critics, “You get bad reactions to even a good piece of cake.”

editorial@observer.com