Book Review: You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

Last December, I went to a dollar store—The Dollar Tree—to buy gift boxes for all of the clothes I’d bought for my family for Christmas. While I was there, I figured I might as well browse the rest of the store to see if they had anything else I might need. I was quite surprised to find several shelves of books. Many of them weren’t even paperbacks, but hardcover. Having recently been published for the first time, I’d become acquainted with the actual cost of printing books. Even these smaller hardbacks had to have cost at least eight or ten bucks to print. The paperbacks had probably cost around five bucks each. And yet here they were, being sold for a mere dollar.

As an author, that was heartbreaking to me. I had to wonder, how awful are these books that the publishers would sell them at such a steep loss? Or, are they even being sold legally? I began to peruse them, reading the back covers and flipping through to read a few lines. Several of them caught my attention. Little did I know I was on the verge of discovering a new favorite I now plan on reading again and again. 

One was a cookbook that also had history on each of the recipes. I thought my nephew might like it since he’ll eventually go off to college and won’t have his mom and grandmas to cook for him anymore. He’s also always been so full of questions. It’s probably my favorite thing about him—his inquisitive nature. He’s always so hungry to learn, so a cookbook with history in it seemed ideal for him. When he opened it on Christmas, I told him that chicks dig a guy who can cook. When his parents were dating, his dad was a better cook than his mom. His rueful smile told me that that might still be the case.

After deciding to buy my nephew the cookbook, I figured I might as well get him some more books, too. I know he’s always loved to read, and books that only cost a dollar would be a good way to get him a decent amount of gifts. I saw another book that I thought he might like. I believe it was call “15” but I’m now unable to find it on Amazon. There was only one copy of it, otherwise I’d have bought a copy for myself, as well.

A second thriller caught my eye, and there were several copies of it. A brown, hardcover book with a pristine, matte dust jacket that showed a woman on the subway. It looked like a photo that had been through a fire, with most of her face burned out of the image. Within the blackened hole, lay the book’s title—YOU ARE ONE OF THEM a novel by Elliott Holt. It was a beautiful cover that really grabbed my attention. The description grabbed me even more. It’s about two girls, Sarah and Jenny, who grew up during the end of the Cold War. They write letters to the leader of Russia asking for peace, and Jenny becomes famous for it before she dies under mysterious circumstances. Ten years later, Sarah travels to Russia in search of answers to the question as to whether Jenny is really even dead or not.

Sold and sold! I buy a copy for myself, as well as one for my nephew. As a child of the 80’s, I’m eager to read some historical fiction that isn’t set centuries ago, but within my own lifetime. I’m also super excited because it’s partially set in Russia and I haven’t had an opportunity to practice Russian words in a long time. It was thrilling to me to see the Cyrillic alphabet in print again, to get to sound out the words before I moved on to the translation that always inevitably followed. I’d actually wanted to do something along these lines in my own trilogy, since I have three Russian characters, as well as two more who speak some Russian. But, it was eventually decided that having Cyrillic letters would throw off most readers and it would be better to just write it in English, but add “she said in Russian.” I’m glad that Holt’s editor and publisher didn’t demand the same of her. It was great to get to sound out the transliterated words, to remember my informal Russian lessons with my co-workers in Phoenix a decade ago. Da, nyet, spasibo, and so on and so forth. I laughed after sounding out Pizza Hut in Russian, since that was one of the two jobs I had in Phoenix where I worked with Russians.

So, a couple weeks ago, I finally pick it up. I’ve got a whole shelf of books that I’ve committed to reading before I go back to ThrillerFest this summer. Several of them are books I want to get signed but I know I’ll feel like an asshole if I bring them from home and haven’t actually read them yet. This book was not one of the books I wanted signed, but it was the shortest book in my physical to-read stack. So I picked it up and decided to read it before I see my nephew the next weekend. If he’s already read it, too, then it’ll give us something to discuss. I read it in four days, only one of which was I off work and got to read most of the day. It’s a quick read, but not for lack of density.

I love the narrator, Sarah. I feel her so deeply. I can really get into this book, perhaps mostly, because I am such an introvert. My heart goes out to Sarah, who never had any real, true friends until Jenny came along. They become inseparable, spending much of their time at Jenny’s house to escape the weirdness at Sarah’s home. They write secret notes to each other, signing with nicknames rather than their real names, should the notes ever be found by someone other than the intended reader. Eventually, a rift is opened when Jenny does something akin to stabbing Sarah in the back. Sarah is too chicken to confront her one and only true friend, but also can’t continue to fake the trust and genuine closeness that used to be there. They spend a year of not hanging out, not really even being friends, before Jenny dies. That’s where my personal life stops to parallel Sarah’s. None of my girlfriends died when I was a kid, though some male friends died when we were teens.

The plot of the book kept twisting through time, but with purpose and necessity. The prologue starts out after the end of the book. At first, it’s a little jarring to jump around in the 80’s, then move on to the 90’s, back to the 80’s, etc. but Holt is very clear about when things are happening. The time jumps only happen at the start of chapters, or there is a demarcated break for a quick flashback mid-chapter. They’re always clearly indicated, which helped a lot when it came to remaining orientated. It also needs to be this way. If the story was told linearly, without any jumping back and forth through time, it would be boring. You’d find out things about the past long before they affected the future. The time-jumping allows for only pertinent information to be presented when it matters to the story. While it takes a bit to get used to, I’m glad I didn’t give up because it really makes the story work. I’m learning as I read more new authors that I actually prefer these books that are a bit confusing at first. They make you think more, thus getting you more into it and interested in the outcome.

She does some tense-jumping, but it is not random. Like the time jumping, it is used to make a point. It was clear to me that in the short, mid-chapter flashbacks where Holt wrote the narration in present tense, it was to show the vividness of Sarah’s memories. Those remembrances are so strong, that she can only think of them in present tense. They’ve left her so raw—even after all these years—that she can only recall them as if they are happening all over again. Personally, I loved that about the book. But, I could also see how this subtly of tone would escape some pedants, while not being missed in the sense of the inconsistency. So, to the pedants who’ve railed at Holt for changing the tense and using flashbacks as revelatory tools to reveal relevant details necessary for the depth of the story—I blow my nose at you. Don’t be such a troll. If you can’t see the beauty and the genius of how this novel was constructed and structured, then you clearly have no business telling a professional that they failed at their job.

I’ve read a number of other reviews of this book. Many of them complained about the ending. To which I say, “Whaaaaaaaaaat?” The ending is not definitive. The finality of this book is ambiguous. It is open-ended, so that one may interpret it however they wish. At least, that’s how I saw it. So, for people who want a certain, clear-cut, happy ending, this is not a book for them. But I loved it. I was so excited when I finished the book. I felt like I’d just gotten off of a roller coaster. It’s like, when you’re standing on the flat, blacktop pavement again, just outside the exit. You’re legs are still a little wobbly, and your stomach is still doing flips inside your belly, while your heart thumps against your ribcage. Your body is giving signs of a trauma, but your mind calls it a thrill. I wonder if that’s why we call it thriller novels. *sigh* I love dissecting language.

I think it’s great that you can kind of make the ending what you want it to be. Is it really her? Is it not? We’ll never know. Maybe that’s only a secret Holt knows. Or perhaps, even the author herself doesn’t know. That makes it even better, doesn’t it?

So, I wrote to the author. It was her only novel, and I was hungry for more. I liked her voice in her writing. I enjoyed the characters she’d crafted and the depth to which she molded them. I also wanted her to know she’d gained a fan. I know how heartening it can be to get an email from a stranger telling you how much they loved your first book. I know how hard it can be to get out that second book. Steve Berry called it second book-itis. It’s easy to get disappointed and lose heart when your very first book doesn’t do well. It’s depressing when you can’t make your advance and bookstores begin to return your unsold copies to make room for books that are selling. I imagine it’s also depressing to hear from someone that your $27 hardbacks are being sold for a mere dollar because they’re over three years old and still haven’t gone to a second printing.

I invited her to ThrillerFest. I hope she comes. It’s such a great group of people. It’s informative and a great chance to meet new people—authors as well as readers. I hope she comes. People can’t buy a book they’ve never heard of, so it’s a good way to get your name out there. I know I probably owe about half of my sales to the ITW exposure I’ve gotten.

Once I’m done with my stack of to-read books—and, honestly once I’m done with the books I’ll buy at the conference—I plan on seeking out her short stories that have been published in anthologies. I expect that will also lead me to discovering a plethora of other authors I’ll want to start reading.