IT'S THE SEASON of the expatriate. Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors concerns the city of Prague, and Elliott Holt's fast, electrifying debut, You Are One of Them, takes us to Russia. Her book is as convincing and absorbing a portrait of post-Soviet Russia as you'll read. But at its heart, it's also about America.
"In Moscow I was always cold," the novel begins, setting the stage for a narrator caught between two countries. This is Sarah Zuckerman, a misunderstood but thoughtful young woman who is a kind of perfect witness to the end of an era of mutually assured destruction, and the question of what comes next. When she was 10, in northwest Washington, DC, she and her best friend Jennifer Jones sat down to write letters to Yuri Andropov, the leader of the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War and Sarah's mother, having lost her youngest daughter to meningitis, was a nervous wreck. Her husband had left, and the house was in shambles. Across the street, however, where the girls would put pen to paper, the Jones family moved in as an apparent model of normalcy, with a mother of blond perfection, dinner on the table at 6 p.m., and a dad who smiles and shines his shoes during the game.
But all is not as it first seems, and the action slices fast and deep. After the letter is published in Pravda, the official Soviet organ, Jones's plea for peace gains worldwide acclaim. In what seems like an altogether innocent development — but this was the Soviet Union, after all — the young girl and her family are invited to Moscow to meet Andropov. Left behind, Zuckerman sulks; she'd come up with the idea of writing letters in the first place. But being passed over ends up being a kind of backwards blessing. Not long after returning from Russia the entire Jones family disappears, apparently burned up in a plane crash. Was it an accident? Signs mount that suggest shadowy figures are involved.
Holt's first talent is with description. She gives us a vivid three-way description of subways, which she uses to help characterize three different cities, almost as if they were people.
The New York and Moscow subways hum with civilization; they smell of human exertion and alcohol-saturated despair. But in Washington, where the trains are not as crowded, where the walls are not tainted with advertisements, the Metro feels almost organic. It's as if the stations were hollowed out by some primal force.
Likewise, Holt gives even potentially forgettable or workmanlike characters the kind of details that make them pop; for instance, even a model suburban mom is treated with enough care to come alive. Before they disappear forever, Holt describes Zuckerman eavesdropping on her best friend's mom. "Mrs. Jones was always ordering things from catalogs; I got used to hearing her recite item numbers and colors (One in watermelon; one in lime) into the phone."
In addition to undermining our first impressions and appearances, Holt's book also looks at the insidious drain of apparent mental illness — and the way a certain twitch can come to seem like the only reasonable reaction to a world operating under the constant threat of mutually assured destruction. Sarah calls her mother from a friend's house and hears the "flutter in her voice."
"'You're shaking your hands, aren't you?' I'd say. 'No,' she'd say, and then pause, and I knew she was startled by the sight of her own manic fingers."
Because of this paranoia, Zuckerman’s mother is somehow able to see the world for what it is — or may yet be revealed to be. If only we were all this sensitive, the book slyly seems to suggest, we might all come to be obsessed with the worst things that could happen. "It's our job to make the world a safer place," the mother says.
When Sarah gets a mysterious email — is her best friend really dead? — it's Zuckerman's turn to control the narrative. Choosing a more dangerous route (one that seems to promise truth, if not comfort) Zuckerman flies to Russia, where the second half of the book finds us face-to-face with the country that has obsessed Sarah's mother, that has defined Sarah’s childhood, and that — in some mysterious way — has taken away her best friend.
You Are One of Them is ultimately about the way the world picks us: to be the ones with boobs, or not; to be the one with the crazy mom, or not; to be the one whose letter a Soviet leader reads, or not. It's tempting to call Holt's conclusions hopeful, because she does, in the end, upend these binaries, showing us how the boobless become beautiful, how the crazy mom outshines the apparently perfect robo-parents, and how having one's letter picked over piles of others doesn't mean what it seems. But Holt has more restraint than Jerry Bruckheimer, at least, and we don’t lose what we’ve gained along the way.
So much can go wrong. We can be ugly to our best friends, we can resent or even hate our parents, some of whom don't even bother to spend time with us or know who we are. And at the highest levels of power, men can point ICBMs at each other, roping us all into an ever-darkening game. Spies can defect and people can be poisoned. There will always be conflict and chaos. Yet, at the heart of it all, what Holt wants us to remember is this, her final line: "We can destroy ourselves."
Nathan Deuel has contributed to Harper’s, GQ, and The New York Times, among others. His debut collection of essays, Friday Was the Bomb, will be published by Dzanc in May 2014.