This is the story of two little girls, growing up in 1980's Washington DC: Sarah and Jennifer. Sarah's family is dysfunctional. The death of her little sister, Isabel at age 4. Her father, an Englishman leaves his family and returns to the UK, seemingly because of Sarah's mother's inability to cope with Isabel's death, and her obsessive behavior regarding the possibility of nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Sarah is a quiet, loner of a girl, until a new family moves in across the street. The Jones family is all American and seems perfect to Sarah, especially their daughter, Jennifer. Sarah and Jennifer becomes fast friends.
They two school girls share secrets and swimming, and spend lots of times together. For Sarah, the Jones family and their complete normalcy is a respite from her mother's somewhat paranoid antics. When Sarah announces to Jennifer she is writing a letter to Yuri Andropov, the current head of the USSR, and Jennifer also writes a letter. However, the outcome of what happens when one of those letter receives a response from Andropov himself.
Sarah is an unreliable narrator: a smart girl who underestimates her own intelligence and likableness throughout her life and the novel. While Sarah is quiet and studious, Jennifer is popular and confident. But Jennifer isn't as smart as Sarah, and she is capricious and disloyal. Sarah struggles with both her mother's problems and fears, and her own more rational apprehensions. She feels abandoned by both her dead sister and her dad, who has remarried and has another child. She uses Cold War terms to deal with the pain: sister and father are both "defectors." It was easy for me to identify with the reserved, intelligent and thoughtful Sarah.
I loved the way the plot is unfurled like an exotic carpet for the reader to carefully examine, close up for themselves. Sarah grows up, in the shadow of both her parent's failed marriage, with the disappointments of childhood still following and grieving her. I didn't know too much about the plot, except that one of the girls has a response to her letter and life changes dramatically forever for Sarah. Fast forward to her college years, and we learn more about Sarah's parents, as most young people gradually understand their parents as they grow older. Sarah's trip to Russia also reveals so many things the young Sarah might not have understood as unsavvy child.
I have to say, while there were points where I felt the plot was slightly weak, I truly enjoyed both the writing and the elegant way the author allows the story to unhurriedly unfold. Nothing in the story feels forced. No storybook endings here, but that is hardly the point of this book, which is about how well you think you know people: especially family and friends, those you are closest with in this world.
I grew up in the 1980s (I'm a little older than Sarah by 4 years), so this book naturally appealed to me. I remember worrying about the missiles the two greatest powers on the planet had pointed at one another. I was influenced by musicians like Sting and U2, and was watching "The Day After Tomorrow" the night it first aired. If any of these touch points ring a bell with you, this book might be for you.