The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Historical
I love learning something from my fiction so was pleased to find out that Lara Prescott’s novel, The Secrets We Kept is based on a true story from the Cold War. Even better, it involves espionage and literature. It seems, at the time, the CIA wanted to use the power of the written word to effect change in the U.S.S.R. They plotted to get Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago, out of the country and published because it had been banned there as subversive. Author Lara Prescott takes this framework and builds a wonderful novel telling the story from both sides—the East and the West. Even better, she tells it from the point-of-view of the women who made it happen, from Pasternak’s muse, Olga to the women in the secretarial pool of the CIA who were often much more than secretaries.
Prescott cleverly splits The Secrets We Kept into chapters set in the East/U.S.S.R and the West/the CIA. This allows for a more in-depth perspective on each of the women. In Washington there is Sally, a sophisticate who none of the other secretaries can quite figure out. In reality, she is a long-time spy and soon helps to train a newcomer, Irina, whose hatred of the Communists and flawless Russian make her the perfect choice to help get Dr. Zhivago into the hands of Russian readers.
In the U.S.S.R, Olga has the prestige and power that comes from being Pasternak’s muse and mistress, right up until the KGB steps in. In an effort to make him stop writing Dr. Zhivago she is kidnapped, tortured, and then sent to a Siberian labor camp for three years. Pasternak is never harmed by the KGB nor does he stop working on the novel. Prescott hints at his selfishness—he does not let concerns for Olga stop him from writing and publishing Dr. Zhivago. His work comes first.
The East and West mirror each other. On both sides there are strong, intelligent, resourceful women. In some instances, they have the appearance of power and control, but ultimately, it’s an illusion. The KGB repeatedly harasses Olga not Pasternak, Sally’s influence is more limited than she thought, and Irina has to choose between her personal life (get married like a good girl) and her professional. Each is often a pawn, being preyed upon and used by men. What made me love The Secrets We Kept is that, despite this, Irina, Sally, and Olga persevere. Their will to accomplish their goals is indomitable.
The Secrets We Kept is engaging on a lot of levels. I haven’t read much Cold War fiction was intrigued by that time period. It was like being able to see behind-the-scenes in the early days of the CIA, a lot of which is unpleasant but all of which is fascinating. The push-pull battle to get Dr. Zhivago published loops from Russia to Italy, Washington D.C. to Ann Arbor and traverses the world of politics, espionage and publishing. When combined with the women’s roles in making it happen it all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable read.