Whispers, lies, and coercion fail to vanquish truth
Two novels, “Our American Friend” and “I Must Betray You,” focus on the effects of distortions and lies on people trapped in authoritarian regimes.
In the month since Russia invaded Ukraine, the crisis narrative has included news stories about denials, manipulations, and outright lies perpetrated by Moscow.
Two riveting novels, “Our American Friend” and “I Must Betray You,” explore the toll exacted on communities, families, and individuals by leaders who traffic in lies to uphold ideologies and cement power. While the books differ in scope and approach, both argue that individuals enduring such regimes often face strained loyalties, sizable risks, and life-changing decisions.
The welcome news: Undeterred, people still find ways to sustain hope and spark change.
“Our American Friend” by Anna Pitoniak trails former White House correspondent Sofie Morse as she embarks on the assignment of a lifetime: writing the biography of first lady Lara Caine, whose brash, scandal-beset husband, Henry, has just been elected to a second term as president.
Initially, Sofie demurs. “The dearth of information struck me as strange,” she admits, ticking off the few things known about the first lady – born in the Soviet Union; raised in Paris during the Cold War; adored by her father, who works as a “military attaché” (code, Sofie suspects, for KGB officer). What stories weren’t being told, she wonders, and why was the first lady so eager to share now?
From the start, Lara’s account of her privileged childhood, first in Moscow in the early 1970s and then in Paris until the late 1980s, entices Sofie. Of particular interest is how the Communist elite moved through these worlds, enjoying forbidden Western indulgences while performing acts of fealty to those with more power.
After weeks of meetings, Lara entrusts Sofie with the details of her most life-changing relationship, a love affair with Sasha, a young Russian who publishes the smuggled stories of dissident Soviet writers from a secret perch in Paris. “Our American Friend” interweaves the increasingly suspenseful story of Lara’s youth with the present-day partnership between Lara and Sofie. The back-and-forth gives the novel a propulsive energy, especially as the truth behind Lara’s clandestine activities in Paris – and their role in her present political position – come to light. Twists, turns, and revelations crowd the final chapters.
“I Must Betray You” by Ruta Sepetys delivers a more harrowing tale. Set in 1989, in a Romania ruled by autocrat Nicolae Ceauşescu, the story introduces Cristian Florescu, an aspiring writer-turned-reluctant informer. When he’s not reporting on the activities of an American diplomat’s son, the 17-year-old struggles beneath the control of the iron-fisted government. He and his fellow citizens endure long lines, freezing apartments, withered food, “compulsory volunteering,” and ubiquitous surveillance.
Early in the novel, Cristian’s beloved grandfather whispers a warning: “Trust no one.” They’re words to survive by, but they’re also the chains binding Cristian and his fellow citizens. As the book gallops to its explosive, revolution-fueled climax, Sepetys makes the case that trust, coupled with selfless courage, cracks autocratic rule and its suppression of truth.
Significant research grounds both historical novels, particularly “I Must Betray You.” Sepetys cites numerous sources in the afterword; they, along with photos from the era, bear quiet witness to a horrific history.
“Our American Friend” feels similarly authentic. Pitoniak, however, follows the path of “what if?” by fleshing out a character and story arc inspired by the famously inscrutable former first lady Melania Trump. The resulting fictional portrait may inspire new curiosity and questions.
“History is the gateway to our collective story,” writes Sepetys in her author’s note. These two compelling novels, portals both, offer reasons aplenty to bolster trust and keep the waters of truth flowing freely.