Welcome to Romania. It’s 1989 and Eastern Europe is changing. However, Nicolae Ceaușescu remains in power in Romania, meaning citizens are oppressed. Cristian Florescu, a 17 year old student, just wants to be a writer and learn about the world outside Bucharest, Romania, but that dream feels impossible. Cristian is being watched by the Securitate and when they find him committing a crime, they have the chance to blackmail him into being an informer for the state.
Cristian’s mom works as a maid at an American diplomat’s residence and it’s Cristian’s job to spy on the man’s son. Quickly, Cristian learns more about what life is like outside of the Communist Bloc. His grandfather was right all along about the outside world. He told Cristian about how Romania could be and what life was like before the Ceaușescu family took over.
Just when Cristian believes everything is hopeless, he learns about successful revolutions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The end of communism can happen, if everyone in Romania is willing to fight. Since Cristian knows his strength is writing, he uses his notebook to tell people the real story of living in Romania and gets it to the American diplomat covertly.
But at the same time, the Securitate is growing more cautious of Cristian and consider him a person of interest. It’s impossible to know if he can trust anyone around him, including his sister CiCi, his best friend Luca and his girlfriend Liliana. With revolution day coming, Cristian has to decide if risking his life for freedom is worth it.
We’ll start by saying that I Must Betray You is insanely powerful. While the book is a work of fiction, the historical events that happened are true. Romania has been overlooked by most of the world, but it had a rich history worth studying. For a bit of context, Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power in 1965 and Western leaders thought favorably of him because he wasn’t aligned with the Soviet Union. However, Romania’s conditions were a lot worse than it’s East European neighbors. It took a while for the West to realize this.
Sepetys has a section in the back of the book where she provides pictures of Romania. She has compare and contrast pictures of a typical apartment building vs Ceaușescu’s palace. Cristian and his four family members live in a one-bedroom apartment. The power frequently goes out and there isn’t enough food to eat. Most nights someone ends up standing in line, whether it be for food, paper products, etc. This is all an accurate interpretation of 1989 life and Sepetys shares her sources at the back of the book.
Based on our description of these living conditions, I hope you can tell that we found I Must Betray You to be a thought-provoking book. While we knew about the horrors of Ceaușescu’s Romania, reading about it from the point of view of a student made it even more shocking. Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena Ceaușescu held a third grade education. They kept their people starving and paranoid, while they lived the lifestyle of the one percent.
We loved Cristian’s character right away. He’d do anything for his family and wanted nothing more than to provide them with a better life. We love that we got to really get to know him, even with all the danger he faced. Some authors sacrifice character development for plot and that didn’t happen at all.
The other characters we liked were Cristian’s grandfather, who fought the regime at every turn and Liliana, who proved to be brave and intelligent. Some of the other characters will keep you guessing, because it’s hard to tell who is loyal to Cristian and who is loyal to the state.
We don’t want to give too much away about the revolution portion. While you can Goggle Romania to see what really happened, we don’t want to spoil what the characters experienced. It kept us glued to the book and we literally could not put it down until we knew what Cristian did. However, the best part of the book happened to be the epilogue. Sepetys gives us a shocking reveal as Cristian recounts his past.
Overall, we loved every second of reading this book. I Must Betray You is perfect for fans of historical fiction. But even if you’re not a fan, the 1989 setting is recent enough for contemporary readers. Get ready for a powerful and emotional read. We’re going to be thinking about the events that occurred in this book for a long time. Remember, studying history matters.