Book Review: You Are One of Them by Elliot Holt

April 23, 2013


You Are One of Them is one of the year’s most highly anticipated novels. Debut author, Elliott Holt, was awarded a Pushcart Prize for her short story “Fem Care,” originally published in The Kenyon Review, was runner-up for the PEN Emerging Writers Award, and was one of New York Magazine’s six “literary stars of tomorrow.” Needless to say, when a writer of such promise publishes a novel, the literary world pays attention.

You Are One of Them begins with a childhood friendship in Washington DC. Sarah and Jenny are best friends in the 1980s, enjoying the life of affluent ten-year-olds, though they come from very different backgrounds. With Cold War tensions on the rise, Sarah decides to write Soviet Premier Yuri Androdov and plead for peace. Jenny does the same, though hers is the only letter to receive a response. Jenny’s letter becomes a national sensation and Sarah is left behind when Jenny is invited to the Soviet Union by the Premier to prove that it too is a peace-loving nation. Not long after, terrible circumstances arise and Sarah is left to reconcile the remnants of a complicated friendship. Years later, she receives a letter regarding Jenny, which propels Sarah on her own trip to the Soviet Union. While abroad, Sarah digs into her memory of Jenny in search of a balance between perception and reality. You Are One of Them is a smart and thrilling exploration of friendship, memory, and how we reconcile the two.

You Are One of Them satisfies in the very same way Ms. Holt’s short fiction does, which is to say I found myself lost in the pages. Holt has a way with storytelling that is witty and approachable, and it’s this element I like most about her writing. Holt’s sensibility as an author speaks for itself — there are no parlor tricks here, nothing over wrought, no drippy details, just good strong writing — and her messages are clear. You Are One of Them takes the reader on an in-depth exploration of friendship, the reliability of memories, and the maturity it takes to reconcile these feelings to a satisfying end. Perhaps what Holt so skillfully portrays is that our memories and the truths within those memories are constantly shifting. Much like the Cold War and Cold War propaganda, relying on an unreliable resource will only yield difficult answers. The journey Elliott Holt takes us on in You Are One of Them is a joy to read. Holt is a true talent, and I can’t wait to see more of her work.

If you’re interested, Ms. Holt linked to a piece on her blog referencing Sarah Smith, a young girl who served as the motivation for her novel.

You Are One of Them
The Penguin Press
May 30, 2013

Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer


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