The Secrets We Kept By Lara Prescott
If biology is destiny, maybe biography is, too; Lara Prescott’s parents named her for the heroine of Boris Pasternek’s Nobel-prize-winning 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, and now she’s centered her crackling debut around the covert Cold War efforts to alternately halt (on the Soviet side) and help (on America’s) its publication.
Unlike her namesake, though, women live fully at the center of Secrets; mistresses, secretaries, and aspiring agents who may have lived their lives in the margins, but saw everything. New hire Irina Drosdova is a cool, self-contained blonde with a Russian birth certificate but no real memories of the motherland; agency veteran Sally Forrester is a Jessica Rabbit sexpot with years of overseas experience in the field; how their (fictional) escapades converge with the true story of Pasternek’s struggle to get Zhivago out into the world — and more specifically, the considerable sacrifices that entailed from his longtime lover and muse, Olga Ivinskaya — form the narrative center of the novel.
At least as much as there can be said to be a center: In alternating chapters, the book toggles between East and West across more than a decade, dropping in on multiple pulse points of the so-called “soft-propaganda warfare” — a battle waged to win over the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens by giving them access to the rogue homegrown art and literature their government denied them.
Really, though, it’s about the women who fought alongside (but officially of course, largely below) the men on that fight’s front lines, scheming and strategizing and even finding the time to fall in love, sometimes with one another. The whirl of trench coats and cocktails and midnight meetings on park benches has the heady whiff of classic old-fashioned spy storytelling, but filtered, too, through Prescott’s thoroughly modern lens. And the result is something like a protofeminist Mad Men transposed to the world of international espionage — all excellent midcentury style and intrigue set against real, indelible history.
You'd think the most alluring element in the title of the debut novel by Michener Center for Writers graduate Lara Prescott would be the "secrets." There are, to be sure, plenty of fascinating ones to uncover in The Secrets We Kept – secrets of infidelity, espionage, dissent, identity, and trauma – but it's the titular "we" that ends up having more weight. The sisterhood that Prescott initiates the reader into in this Cold War story, at once workaday and mythic, is one you're loath to leave even when the story has come to its close.
The Greek chorus that opens the novel is made up of the perpetually overlooked and underappreciated: the secretaries in the CIA's typing pool. Their memories invite us into Washington, D.C., at the outset of the 1950s, where myriad plans to undermine the Soviet Union are being hatched – the newest one being to use the novel Doctor Zhivago as anti-communist propaganda. While most of the secretaries end their workday at five o'clock, two have extracurricular duties. The daughter of Russian immigrants and the newest addition to the typing pool, Irina has an ability to be inobtrusive that makes her a candidate for being a carrier – the kind of spy who makes document pickups and drop-offs that leave no one the wiser. Sally, who becomes Irina's trainer (and has big Joan-from-Mad Men energy, by the way), is a spy of a more seductive breed, but she recognizes in Irina a similar sense of humor, hunger for the work, and queer desire. And all the while, across the Atlantic, the love story behind the love story the CIA hopes to disseminate is entering middle age. Olga, the longtime mistress of Zhivago author Boris Pasternak, survives state violence and makes a life on the fringes of her lover's life, all the while working to protect her family and bring his book to publication.
There's a discretion Prescott maintains throughout The Secrets We Kept, perhaps appropriate given the work and circumstances of her protagonists – she never prescribes an absolute truth when she can give you the big picture and the stories that gently contradict one another and let the reader draw their own conclusion instead. There's readerly pleasure in being trusted to have a keen eye and considerable storytelling strength in the approach as well. Putting Soviet fearmongering and the Lavender Scare – when the U.S. government went to great lengths to root out, fire, and blacklist LGBTQ employees – side-by-side could have felt heavy-handed. By letting us discover the infuriating, cruel hypocrisy of it for ourselves, Prescott makes the comparison feel new and vital.
There's a lot endured by the women of The Secrets We Kept – professional disrespect, governmental menace, sexual assault, all on top of the indignity of their accomplishments being swept under the rug – but astonishingly, this isn't a novel as bleak as a Russian winter. Hope isn't something anyone comes by lightly, Prescott suggests – its maintenance requires imagination, fortitude, and enduring love – but she's assembled a group of heroines with all three in spades.
Lara Prescott's debut novel, THE SECRETS WE KEPT, is out September 3, 2019 from Alfred A. Knopf (US) and Hutchinson (UK), and will be translated into 29 languages.
Lara received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in 2018. She grew up in Pennsylvania and studied political science at American University in Washington, D.C. Prior to writing fiction, Lara worked as a political campaign consultant.
Lara's writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, Tin House Flash Friday, and more. She lives in Austin, Texas.
#I am going to change my rating on this book to a 3.5 rounded up to a 4 star book. I love books about spies, particularly women spies so I had really high expectations for this book. I had some problems with the flow, back and forth between what was happening with the author of Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, in the East and what was going on in the West, centering on the CIA and how it planned to use the book as a “weapon” against the Soviets.
All in all I enjoyed this book, it just took me a while to get through it. The novel starts during the time of the Cold War, four years after the end of WWII. Boris Pasternak was a renowned writer in Russia, short stories and poetry, and was well loved by the Russian government and the general population, that is until Russia became the USSR under Lenin and then Stalin. Boris saw many of his fellow artists, writers, musicians, painters, being taken away to labor camps or met with an even worse fate. Stalin tolerated Boris and he was allowed to live in a beautiful country home as well as his apartment in Moscow.
At the point when we enter the story, Boris is working on what he hopes will be his masterpiece. He is writing a novel about the way Russia used to be before communism and the truth about the revolution. It will tell of the opportunities and freedom that are no longer a part of life under communism. His lover and muse, Olga, will figure prominently in the book.
When the West gets wind of the novel they immediately start to set in motion plans to smuggle the novel out of the USSR, translate it for distribution in other countries and then ultimately smuggle the finished copies back into the hands of the people of Russia. The novel was banned from publication and distribution in Russia. One of my favorite quotes “Teddy rose to get another drink, returning with two martinis, an extra olive in his. “A toast?” Henry asked, to what?” “The book, of course. May our literary weapon of mass destruction make the monster squeal.”
The sections on the typing pool in the West, comprised of well educated women, some who had completed covert operations during the war interesting and upsetting. Now these women are relegated to typing the notes of the men in charge of operations with no input into what goes on! One woman, Irina, is singled out as being useful for the tasks associated with smuggling the novel out of Russia. She was brought up speaking the language fluently as her mother was Russian. She is taught at length about covert operations first by her boss Teddy and then later by another agent, Sally, with whom there is an immediate connection.
The sections on the East deal not only with Boris but with Olga who suffered the fate of 3 years in a labor camp for her association with Pasternak. Boris has a wife and two children but we don’t really get to know much about her except that she allowed Boris to keep his mistress as long as he spent his “writing” time at the country house with her.
There is romance and love, family and commitments involving the characters in the US and in the East. There are also strong opinions on loyalty to one’s government but even more so, to the rights of an individual to speak, write and read whatever they want. Reminding me once again how fortunate I am to live in a free country.
I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley.
# ”Sometimes they’d refer to us not by name but by hair color or body type: Blondie, Red, Tits. We had our secret names for them, too: Grabber, Coffee Breath, Teeth.
“They would call us girls, but we were not.
“We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly plans. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was ‘Can you type?’”
This begins four years after the end of World War II, and among these women were “leftovers” from the OSS, women who had been legends for their heroic and dangerous work during the war were also just women, after all, and were reduced to typing with the rest of the typing pool.
Still, one or two of these women seem to work their way into proving their worth to the agency, outside of typing, and soon they are tested to see how well they can keep secrets, and follow instructions, and they end up being spies for the agency. Eventually, the task that is revealed involves finding and acquiring the manuscript for Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, in order to make copies to be distributed to Russian readers, who will be attending an event on US soil, and will return with these books in hand to share. Since the novel was banned in Russia for its revolutionary, subversive content, they are hoping to sway the Russian people through the beauty and power of the compelling nature of this Nobel Prize winning literary legend.
And, as with Dr. Zhivago, there is a love story or two, but there is also a focus on loyalty and love, love in its many forms from romantic to familial, sacrifice and the cost of sacrifice over time to all involved. Perhaps what stood out the most to me was the emotional toll it took for these women to live in the shadows of these men, and in the shadows as spies, or seditious - and never to be thought worthy of voicing their opinion or objection to a course of action set by men.
This is one of those rare books, a historic and finely-crafted page-turner about the power of the written word that will leave you contemplating such topics as equality, sexuality, censorship, the freedom of the press and how books have the power to change lives – all topics that are still as relevant, if not more, today. This is certainly destined to be a best seller.
Many thanks for the ARC provided by my Book Angel!
The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott