Few historical fiction authors can make the past come alive like Ruta Sepetys, and this unforgettable coming-of-age story set in dictator-controlled Romania is a testament to her mastery. Cristian is a perfectly imperfect protagonist. He's thoughtful and observant, loves his sister and grandfather, and has a sweet crush on "girl next door" Liliana, who's so much more than she seems. Cristian's connection to his Bunu is especially heartwarming, even though it's Bunu's declining health that persuades the teen to agree to inform (as if he really ever had a choice). Sepetys roots readers in the austerity of '80s Romania. There's an adage that in socialism, everyone shares the wealth, but in communism, everyone shares the poverty. And that's the case with the Florescus, who take turns waiting hours in lines for scraps and think they know which neighbors are "reporters," Securitate, black-market operators, and more. As the story progresses, however, it's clear that Cristian doesn't really know anyone, and that his Bunu was right that no one can be trusted when the Party hears all.
Cristian's relationship with the Van Dorn family, particularly Dan -- the target of his informing -- is particularly fascinating, because it illustrates the various personality and mindset differences between someone born and bred in a dictatorship and someone raised in a democracy. The two teen boys bond over stamps and small outings to the American Library, where Cristian discovers through a Time magazine that nearby Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria have all managed what Romanians had not -- to overthrow their dictatorships and demand their independence. Sepetys once again weaves in a beautifully developed romance to the serious proceedings, and Liliana is an amazing role model of courage, resilience, and integrity. Despite the necessary exposition to provide historical context, Cristian's story is engaging and emotional. Parts of I Must Betray You are difficult to read, and there are no pat happily ever afters. This is a stirring book about a young man's desire for more, not just for himself but for his country.