First, a Shout-out to a local Austin writer–yay! This novel combines a few of my favorite things: spies, intrigue, and literature, oh my! I am sure other reviewers have pointed this out, but I would also like to make sure everyone notes the irony of the author’s first name being the name of the main character in the novel that this book is about, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I think there might be some backstory there.
The Secrets We Kept conjures up the early days of the CIA, when Ivy League frat boys dreamed of a world without communism and thought that they could win the propaganda war with the Soviets. The office girls were mostly typists and secretaries, but a few worked their way up–I have made a note to myself to do some research on early CIA work–there have been a rash of new histories and biographies coming our telling the stories of women we never knew about from the files, now that they are being declassified. I have found it inspirational lately that there are more writers and historians telling women’s stories. Women who had previously been footnotes have been getting more press; some like Hedy Lamar, are even getting long overdue recognition. So I appreciate Prescott’s novel for going behind the scenes from a woman’s point of view.
The story follows a group of women who work in the typing pool of the CIA offices, when they were located on E Street in D.C, before Langley. The point of view changes as the story unfolds, with different women, some main characters, others bit players, but this is one of the best tools Prescott uses. The shifting first person narrative lets the reader know more than any one character knows, so even though the reader is not omniscient, she almost feels that way. Parallel plots unfold. The first fictionalizes the circuitous route Boris Paternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago took–smuggled out of Russia and published first in Italy, then throughout the West. This plot includes the now well known tale of its publication in Russian by the CIA and distribution to Soviet citizens attending the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Read more about that here. Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As is often the case, the women in Pasternak’s life, including his inspiration for Lara don’t fare so well. You’ll need to read the book. The other plot in the novel concerns a second generation Russian immigrant, displaced by the turmoil of World War II when her mother fled to the United States and her father was grabbed by secret police just as they were about to board a ship. Irina gets a job at the fledgling CIA as a typist, but is marked out early for “other work” because of her Russian background, fluency in the language, and various talents.
The Secrets We Kept has much to recommend it. The characters are interesting and Prescott uses the chapter titles to track their growth and change over the course of the novel. Suspense abounds, especially in the scenes at the World’s Fair and the Italian publisher’s party, but neither gratuitous violence nor action derails the plot. The reader sweats bullets when Irina is dressed as a nun trying to convince Russians to take the little book back to the USSR, read it, and pass it on. Prescott does a wonderful job evoking the period; the clothes, the manners, the way the men treat the women, it’s all there. In addition, the reader is treated to a different look at Boris Pasternak–he is a genius, but he had help, as so many geniuses do from the women in his life, who largely went unacknowledged. It is the Mistress’s story that gripped me the most. She suffered for his art more than he did, at least in this telling.
This is a quiet novel, which will give the reader much to think on. It successfully threads the needle by presenting the past without nostalgia and without harsh judgement by modern standards. It is a story of struggle, love, and hope for the future. It is also the often untold story of women in history and literature.
- Which character was your favorite and why?
- Do you think books can change the world? Why or why not–give examples.
- What do you think were the secrets referred to in the title? How does the title have multiple meanings?
- Does this book make you want to read Dr. Zhivago? Why or why not?
- Can you think of other examples where the history we know is not the whole story?
- How can we make sure that “the rest of the story” is told moving forward?
- There are a lot of sacrifices in the novel–Irina’s mother and father, Pasternak’s mistress. Which characters in the novel do you think suffered the most? Which sacrifices were the most meaningful? Can you think of any real life examples of sacrifices like the ones in the novel?