Annotation by Kate Maruyama
Finding solutions to the problems in your work in progress isn’t always a matter of sitting down and figuring them out. Sometimes you have to place a question in your mind and ride around with it for a little while. It will solve itself at an unexpected moment–on a walk, a drive, while cleaning house or sometimes, when you are reading a book.
My most recent solution came to me when I was reading Elliott Holt’s YOU ARE ONE OF THEM. The solution itself isn’t really that important to anyone but myself, but why I came to it is the manner in which Holt, over the course of twenty years of fictional time in her book, creates a complex relationship between two people, weaves in an obsession and holds it together with a tether of mystery. This is a very solidly constructed book, and I’m guessing the structure came after character for Holt. This does not feel like an executed outline, more like a story that grew organically and layered itself with delicate strings and webs—I’m also guessing a lot of the writing was cut in order to bring the relationship and the story into sharper relief.
The book is a good reminder that characters don’t always come to us fully grown. We often start with a sketch of them and then start asking questions.
After a moment in Russia in present day, our heroine Sarah starts out the book with her history—A sister who died at a young age and changed everything—turning her mother into an anxiety-ridden mess, separating her parents by a country. As an adolescent, Sarah is plain, and, because of her fearful mother, her life is very small. She is set up, ready to be swept off her feet, and so she is when her ebullient, pretty, outgoing neighbor Jennifer Jones moves in. Holt sketches their childhood friendship in intimate detail and it doesn’t take long for the reader to get a handle on the flavor of that friendship, and how desperately Sarah needs it. The writing is absorbing, and, as we are told of Jennifer’s death from the first pages, we are kept interested, waiting to see what led to what.
But what’s so lovely about this novel is that nothing is guessable.
Holt instead immerses us in Sarah’s obsession with her friend, which only grows when a rift comes between the girls, involving a letter sent to Andropov. We are taken back to the present and Sarah’s search for Jennifer, whom she has been told, may not be dead. While this mystery keeps the pages turning, the story is more a reflection of that painful self-defining time of life, our early twenties. Sarah’s search does not lead us down the alley of a clichéd thriller or to a nail-biting ending, but to a much more satisfying place arrived at through character.
Holt’s prose is anchored in the reality of surroundings. It’s a good lesson in details, from the green, insect-laden humid suburbs of DC to the cold, cigarette smoke-choked, alcoholic winter in Russia. We are always with our main character, in her body, her discomforts, her nagging obsessions, even her eye-rolling over her neurotic mother. There is a truly present three-dimensional person for us to get a hold on.
As I start a new project, having spent over a year doing revisions of two others, I seem to have forgotten that those characters I know didn’t come from nowhere. They were built in layers. Only through asking them questions, putting them in situations to see how they’ll act, throwing them into conversations did they come to life. Aside from creating a really good read, Holt reminded me which questions were the right ones to be asking. And to trust that it is not an elevator pitch that gets a novel written; it is in the writing of the novel that you eventually arrive, much richer, at the pitch.