Best friends caught up in the Cold War


Sarah and Jenny bond, and then are torn apart in a suspicious plane crash.

Washington, D.C., native Elliott Holt has borrowed the title of her first novel from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called In the Waiting Room, in which a narrator recalls her first shocked realization, at age 6, that her identity is connected to a world full of other people. “You are one of them,” Bishop’s narrator tells herself.

Like Bishop’s poem, Holt’s novel uses finely honed language to express emotion about learning to belong in the world. Her young protagonist, Sarah Zuckerman, chooses Cold War political terminology to describe personal cataclysms. Thus, the novel begins: “The first defector was my sister.” Here Sarah is talking about her older sibling, who died of meningitis in 1973.

Mourning her sister, Sarah suffers an only child’s isolation, confessing, “I wanted a co-conspirator.” Her grieving mother develops an array of phobias, including an obsessive fear of nuclear war. This proves too much for her economist father, who abandons the family when Sarah is 7. “So the second defector was my father,” notes Sarah. “Once he left, he was gone for good.”

When a new family moves in nearby, Sarah meets the co-conspirator of her dreams, a girl her age named Jenny Jones. Charismatic and pretty, Jenny takes awkward Sarah under her wing. In the Bishop’s Garden of the Washington National Cathedral a few blocks away from their Cleveland Park street, “We held summits in the gazebo,” Sarah says, and the girls leave secret messages for each other in the garden wall.

Yet even during playtime, suspicion is the undercurrent here. As her mother stocks their basement with disaster-ready canned goods, Sarah wonders about the lives of ordinary Russians, imagining Moscow as Washington’s mirror image, each city wary of the other. “Was there an eight-year-old girl somewhere in Moscow whose sister had also died,” she wonders, “whose father had also left?” One day in 1982, Sarah decides to write to Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Union’s new leader, asking if he plans to start a nuclear war. Jenny enthusiastically writes a similar letter of her own.

To her surprise, Jenny’s letter appears in Pravda — Sarah’s letter, oddly, has gone missing — and Jenny is invited to Moscow as a junior ambassador for peace. Jenny later becomes a celebrity at home, conducting speaking tours around the United States. She and Sarah grow apart, counting, for Sarah, as one more painful defection. Then, in 1985, 12-year-old Jenny and her parents are en route to Maine when their plane mysteriously crashes. Their bodies are never recovered.

Sarah’s narration skips to 1996, just after college graduation. No longer awkward, she’s aimless nevertheless, and finds herself thinking about Jenny, whose brief fame has been forgotten. Old suspicions surface: Had Jenny been used as a propaganda tool? Did the CIA shoot down Jenny’s plane? The KGB? Or could it be that Jenny defected in 1985 and now lives a mirror-image life — you are one of them — as an ordinary Russian? Off to Moscow Sarah goes to uncover the truth for herself.

Holt evokes post-Cold War Moscow as capably as she renders Washington, summoning piquant details — the rusting infrastructure swathed in grime and cigarette smoke; the streets thronged with track-suited men, scolding old ladies, supermodels, prostitutes, expats — and the vigorous mood of a culture striving for reinvention.

Again, the author pays thoughtful attention to word usage, noting the poetry in a common greeting among old friends, “ Skolko let, skolko zim?” or “How many summers, how many winters?” Holt has found inventive ways to use language that suggests the porousness of identity, the correspondence between self and other, neighbor and foreigner, you and them. Her ingenuity brings distinction to this confident, crafty first novel.

Donna Rifkind reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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