A paperback copy of the novel "The Secrets We Kept" by Lara Prescott sits on a wooden drafting board next to a vase of faux spring blossoms, a lit vanilla candle, and a cup of tea in a burnt orange mug, surrounded by a navy blue throw blanket on top of a white bedspread.

The Secrets We Kept – Book Review

A paperback copy of the novel "The Secrets We Kept" by Lara Prescott sits on a wooden drafting board next to a vase of faux spring blossoms, a lit vanilla candle, and a cup of tea in a burnt orange mug, surrounded by a navy blue throw blanket on top of a white bedspread.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Published by: Vintage
Publish Date: 2020
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fiction About Fiction; Russian; LGBT
HB&W Rating: 3.5
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Synopsis

At the height of the Cold War, Irina, a young Russian-American secretary, is plucked from the CIA typing pool and given the assignment of a lifetime. Her mission: to help smuggle Doctor Zhivago into the USSR, where it is banned, and enable Boris Pasternak’s magnum opus to make its way into print around the world. 

Mentoring Irina is the glamorous Sally Forrester: a seasoned spy who has honed her gift for deceit, using her magnetism and charm to pry secrets out of powerful men. Under Sally’s tutelage, Irina learns how to invisibly ferry classified documents—and discovers deeply buried truths about herself. 

The Secrets We Kept combines a legendary literary love story—the decades-long affair between Pasternak and his mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya, who inspired Zhivago’s heroine, Lara—with a narrative about two women empowered to lead lives of extraordinary intrigue and risk. 

Told with soaring emotional intensity and captivating historical detail, this is an unforgettable debut: a celebration of the powerful belief that a work of art can change the world.

Synopsis source: Goodreads

Review

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.

Prescott, 2020, p. 195, cited 1981 The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by Andrew H. MacAndrew, Translation Copyright 1970, Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor, Quote Page 306 and 307, Bantam Books, New York. 

Female spies, forbidden love, and a Soviet traitor….this should be good.

Have you read Dr. Zhivago? I haven’t, but I confess that I would like to now. Go figure, I’m always wanting to do the things people tell me I’m not allowed to do. You see, if you’re like me, you may not know that Dr. Zhivago was a banned book in the USSR, a book so against the Soviet propaganda that even whispers of the contents while it was being written was enough to get author Boris Pasternak’s mistress, the muse for his story, sent away to a “rehabilitation camp,” aka the gulags. The book references this story, staging part of the book there in the gulags and told from the mistress’ point of view. While reading about it, I had to Google it later to discover that this in fact actually happened.

This story is told in all different narratives: first, second, and third persons. I confess that this was perplexing to me at first until the aha moment when I realized that the chapter “titles” weren’t actually titles, but a device the author used to let us know who was talking. Yes, I know, that should have been obvious. I blame my exhaustion from a new puppy for not picking up on that very quickly. Anyhow, there were a lot of POVs and that can be kind of dicey as a reader, particularly when you maybe only hear about them one chapter or two, then no more. In some cases, I found this to be a useful tool, and others it felt a bit forced. That said, I think that the author did a great job bringing the real-life character of Olga to life. Equally well-drawn were the other two female protagonists, Irina and Sally.

Our ages hit me as if jumping into a freezing river, and I wondered if we had anything left in us to sustain all that was to come.

Prescott, 2020, p.290

There was a lot going on after WWII ended…the war was over, but a new one had just begun, the Cold War. On top of that, WWII saw the first real surge of women in the workplace, and having been granted that opportunity, many felt displaced once the men returned and suddenly there was no place for these amazing and talented women, except as secretaries and other menial jobs deemed appropriate for the delicate female nature. The author had a wonderful way of illustrating this displacement in a very real way, and I found myself sympathizing with what those women must have felt about it.

This book is part historical spy novel and part love story. Hired as a typist at the Agency (the precursor of the CIA), Irina wasn’t hired for her typing skills, but the ability she possessed of receding to the background, unnoticeable. The mission, should she choose to accept it, was for Irina to help smuggle Dr. Zhivago, the banned book that had been published in Italy without the consent of the Soviet Republic, into Russia as anti-communist propaganda, an Agency effort to sew the seeds of discord in the minds and hearts of the Russian people (this, too actually happened).

The love stories of this novel all appear to have that forbidden quality to them. There’s the love Boris has for his novel, a novel that no one in the USSR would publish, his life’s work that he risked everything to have published at any cost. The novel was inspired by another forbidden love, the love Boris and Olga had for each other, even though Boris was married. And one more forbidden love, but I don’t want to spoil it, just know that at this time, it was quite the taboo.

And each time, I’d feel that same inner gasp, that exquisite anticipation–that moment the lights go down and the film begins, that moment when, for just a few seconds, the whole world feels on the verge of awakening.

Prescott, 2020, p.326

This book was pretty good, better than okay. I think that it was an excellent portrayal of women in a post-WWII world and the obstacles that they faced both personally and in the workplace, in a mostly general way, and I liked that the main characters were women, but the three of them weren’t equally well-written. I felt that Olga was fleshed out so well, and by the end of the novel, I felt like I really knew her. Sadly, I don’t know that I can really say the same for the other two women. Still, it was a diverting read and enjoyable enough. If you like historical fiction and women’s untold stories, then you would probably enjoy this novel.

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Happy reading!


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