The year is 1982, and best friends Sarah Zuckerman and Jenny Jones are 10 years old and living in an upscale neighborhood of Washington, DC. Sarah is a lonely only child whose older sister, Izzy, died of meningitis at the age of four. Her untimely death ultimately destroys her parents’ marriage, with her father abandoning the family and moving to his native London with his new wife. Sarah lives alone with her mother, an agoraphobic who has become obsessed with the possibility of nuclear war. It’s the 1980s, and the nation is preoccupied with the Cold War and the Soviet Union as the enemy. When Jenny moves into the house next door with her parents, Sarah’s world suddenly changes and they become inseparable best friends.
One rainy afternoon, Sarah comes up with the idea to write letters to the Soviet premier, Yuri Andropov, asking for world peace. Jenny’s father offers to mail the letters, and Jenny’s note actually receives a response from Andropov. Soon enough, Jenny is invited to visit the Soviet Union with her family. She becomes a media sensation, appearing on national talk shows, while Sarah watches from home. Slowly, their intense friendship starts to unravel, and Sarah finds herself being replaced by Kim, the popular girl in school. Having barely talked to Jenny in a year, Sarah is being pulled out of class while in seventh grade to be told that Jenny and her parents have been killed in a plane crash.
“Sometimes I think of the three of them --- my sister, my father, Jenny --- nesting inside one another, like a matryoshka doll. Each loss has to be unpacked to find the loss that came before. My sister is the smallest doll, the kernel of pain. My father is the next one, and then Jenny. And if there are bigger dolls, the hollow shells that contain the others, they represent various boyfriends who abandoned me, usually because I was too serious, too ‘intense.’ Their departures were just echoes of a much earlier grief.”
"[Holt's] writing is first-rate, and she has crafted an insightful, haunting and, at times, powerful debut."
Now it’s 10 years later, and Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a letter from a woman named Svetlana in Russia, telling her that she was Jenny’s tour guide when she visited and asking Sarah to visit her there. Sarah begins an email correspondence and Svetlana asks, “How do you know Jennifer Jones is dead?” Is it possible that Jenny and her family faked their death so they could defect to Russia?
So begins Sarah’s journey to Russia and the search for the truth about what really happened to Jenny. After finding an apartment to share with a friend living in Moscow, Sarah is offered a job working for the Moscow Times. Finally, Svetlana calls her to come visit her advertising agency, where four women are sitting in a conference room as part of a focus group. As Sarah looks at all the women, she is almost convinced that one of them, Zoya, is really Jenny. She follows her out of the building to Gorky Park but eventually loses her. Several days later, they meet up again with Zoya at her dacha in the countryside. There, while taking a walk alone with her, Zoya admits that she is really Jenny and tells Sarah she is utterly broke and needs money.
“You want money? I said. I thought of the money from my father. Ten thousand dollars was nothing to him. He and Phillipa wrote checks of that size all the time.”
“I wanted to see you again,” she said.
It was what I’d longed to hear. But I’d always imagined hearing those words from the Jenny I knew. I’d been holding on to my fossilized idea of Jenny. The woman beside me --- who claimed to be the former Jennifer Jones --- seemed like a stranger. And it wasn’t just Jenny I’d suspended in amber. I’d turned myself into a fossil, too.”
The ending of YOU ARE ONE OF THEM feels a bit too rushed, and it is up to the reader to decide if Zoya is in fact Jenny. Elliott Holt intentionally wraps up the novel this way, but I would have preferred a more clear-cut conclusion. Nevertheless, her writing is first-rate, and she has crafted an insightful, haunting and, at times, powerful debut.
Reviewed by Jennifer Romanello on June 14, 2013
You Are One of Them: A Novel About Secrets, Betrayal, and the Friend Who Got Away