Thanks to Celeste, we have a personalized autographed copy of EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU to give away to one lucky reader at the end of this post (details below). Thank you, Celeste, for joining us at Great New Books and sharing one of your favorite reads with us today!
Author Celeste Ng, on one of her recent favorite books:
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
I had a feeling that I would like Elliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them—after all, the same editor had acquired my novel, too—but I didn’t know just how much I was going to love it.
Masochistic as it may sound, I love books that break my heart, and You Are One of Them begins with Sarah, the narrator, cataloging her losses: “The first defector was my sister.” Notice that word: defector. It’s a telling reminder of Cold War mindset—a world full of secrets and spies, in which nothing is as it seems (or is it?)—which is brought to life in perfect detail here. One after another, people leave Sarah: her sister, who dies of meningitis; her father, who leaves the family; her mother, who retreats into depression and agoraphobia. But it is the loss of her best friend, Jenny, that scars Sarah most, and the longing for reconnection—to reclaim those who’ve defected—forms this novel’s core.
In 1982, at the height of the Cold War, Jenny and Sarah both write letters to Yuri Andropov, asking for peace, but only Jenny’s receives an answer. Jenny is catapulted to international fame, causing a rift between her and Sarah, and when she dies in a plane crash, Sarah is haunted by her death. But ten years later, Sarah receives a letter that suggests Jenny is still alive, and she sets off to Moscow in search of her beloved defector.
The novel is elegantly and elegiacally written: from beneath, the surface of a swimming pool is “soft and beckoning, a membrane through which light sieved like sugar”; a woman’s laugh is “a girlish confection, the sort of giggle induced by intense tickling.” And a wry sense of humor laces its way through the novel. “Russians start a lot of sentences with ‘Unfortunately,’” Sarah notes at one point. “They are used to explaining what is not possible.” Holt, who spent time in Moscow, has a keen eye for both the absurdities and the profundities of post-Soviet Russia. “In a foreign alphabet,” she writes, “even familiar signs were disorienting.” The same is true in this beguiling novel. As Sarah searches Moscow for her long-lost friend, she inevitably delves into her own past as well—her family relationships, her childhood, and her own relationship with Jenny—and finds that, when you look closely, familiar things can feel foreign and the foreign seems oddly familiar.
Is Jenny still alive? That question kept me turning pages until the very end—I read the book in one sitting—but You Are One of Them is about much more. It’s about learning when (and how) to let go of the past, about learning how to live when haunted by loss. The longing that suffuses this novel, and its astonishing last pages, haunt me still, in the best possible way. I think they’ll haunt you too.
To enter the drawing to win the personalized and autographed copy of Celeste Ng’s novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, fill out the form and click Submit below. Entries are open from Wednesday, June 25 until Friday, June 27 at midnight Eastern time.
The GreatNewBooks team will email the winner and announce it here on Monday, July 30. (Entries for the Continental US only, please.) As always, thanks for helping us to spread the word about great books and thank you for joining us!
Have you read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng or You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt? We’d love to hear what you think — please share in the comments below. Thanks!