INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER A HELLO SUNSHINE x REESE WITHERSPOON BOOK CLUB PICK A thrilling tale of secretaries turned spies, of love and duty, and of sacrifice--inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago. At the height of the Cold War, two secretaries are pulled out of the typing pool at the CIA and given the assignment of a lifetime. Their mission: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago out of the USSR, where no one dare publish it, and help Pasternak's magnum opus make its way into print around the world. Glamorous and sophisticated Sally Forrester is a seasoned spy who has honed her gift for deceit all over the world--using her magnetism and charm to pry secrets out of powerful men. Irina is a complete novice, and under Sally's tutelage quickly learns how to blend in, make drops, and invisibly ferry classified documents. The Secrets We Kept combines a legendary literary love story--the decades-long affair between Pasternak and his mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya, who was sent to the Gulag and inspired Zhivago's heroine, Lara--with a narrative about two women empowered to lead lives of extraordinary intrigue and risk. From Pasternak's country estate outside Moscow to the brutalities of the Gulag, from Washington, D.C. to Paris and Milan, The Secrets We Kept captures a watershed moment in the history of literature--told with soaring emotional intensity and captivating historical detail. And at the center of this unforgettable debut is the powerful belief that a piece of art can change the world.
From the American side, there are multiple protagonists, some more prominent than others, with their personal histories, but the main topic is the Cold War and glimpses into CIA work at the time. For me, the premise of the novel was a little more noteworthy than its implementation.
Here's a meaningful quote - sentiments of one of CIA operatives - especially for the fans of Dostoyevsky and other Russian literary giants:
"After I dropped down to my high school freshman weight and my skin took on the color of a city sidewalk, it wasn't my parents or the doctor they forced me to "just talk to" that pulled me out of it, it was "The Brothers Karamazov". Then "Crime and Punishment", then "The Idiot", then everything the man ever wrote. Dostoyevsky threw me a rope in the fog and began to tug... I was convinced, as only a young man can be, that deep down I had the soul of a Russian".
While Olga is also involved, to a lesser extent, in the scheme, hers is mostly the story of her long devotion to Pasternak, despite his failure to divorce his wife and marry her. Olga is not only Pasternak's lover but his protector and defender; she even spends eight years in hard labor after refusing to become an informant. The poet himself comes off as a rather pathetic, unlikable character who stands up for his principles only to stand down and give in. Of course, with the full force of the Communist Party against him, his only other option would have been condemnation, persecution, and death.
Initially, the structure of the book is rather confusing, shifting between East and West and among the various main characters--who are identified by changing descriptives. Irina, for example, is described as The Typist, The Carrier, The Nun, The Student, and more. But this all starts to fall into place about halfway through.
While [The Secrets We Kept] won't make the top of my list, it was an engaging read.
This book tells the story of the role played by the CIA in getting Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago, which had been smuggled out of Russia by an Italian publisher, translated into Russian and into the hands of the Russian people. The narrative moved back and forth between the female CIA agents (and typists) and Boris Pasternak and his lover in the Soviet Union. It was a bit hard to follow at first but eventually I could easily follow the threads and found the narrative very compelling. The sections about Pasternak’s lover, Olga, as she endured her time in the gulag were incredibly horrific. It’s incredible what she survived.
I believe this is a debut novel and so it does read like a first novel. She touches on homophobic behavior in the CIA in the 1950s when this story is set and also the misogyny in the agency which both reflect opinions in the country at that time. And she shows us once again that women make the best spies. I found this historical fiction to be quite gripping and well done and will be looking for whatever this author does next.
Olga is Pasternak’s mistress – for years; she is a secret to no one, particularly Pasternak’s wife. Pasternak is favored by some in the upper echelons, mostly for some earlier poems. But as word leaks out in the final years of the Stalin era that Boris is writing a novel critical of the government, it is decided that punishment must be meted out. And so Olga is sentenced to 5 years labor in Siberia! Olga suffers, and ages, but she is a survivor, and a lucky one. There is a change in leadership and Olga is released early. Pasternak’s new book “Dr. Zhivago” is ready for publication and Olga, acting as agent for Boris, approaches book publisher after book publisher in Moscow but no one will touch it - the government wants no reminders of what Russian life has been like in the post-Revolution years.
Meanwhile, in post-WWll D.C., the CIA has opened its first offices and has hired a pool of uber secretaries/typists. Many are college grads, one has a degree in engineering. But there are no suitable opportunities and many need any office work they can get, hoping to eventually move up, so they take the typing jobs. And then Irina joins the pool – she’s fluent in Russian. And Sally is hired as a receptionist but she is hardly ever at the reception desk.
The two “novellas” alternate blocks of chapters. The descriptions of place in each is excellent, including the typists meeting for lunch, going to a movie together after work in 1950s D.C., in partying on a boat with the bosses. Irina is given some basic spy training, starting with drops and pickups. In Russia, Pasternak works at getting his book published while living in a comfortable dacha just outside Moscow, the “big house”; Olga lives nearby in the “little house”. Back in DC, one of the CIA bosses comes up with a brainstorm – how about getting a copy of Dr. Zhivago, print hundreds of copies and disseminate it to Russians traveling abroad as anti-government propaganda. The books would be smuggled into the country then passed from citizen to citizen.
So, some pluses and minuses here, in addition to the ones mentioned above. I enjoyed the scenes about life in DC in the 50s. I also thought the glass ceiling scenes were extremely well done and I better understand women’s frustrations over the prejudices they have had to overcome. All was well researched, lots of detail and very authentic. I enjoyed also the descriptions of Pasternak’s work, and Olga’s years in prison – thankfully, not overdone. SK is not a great spy novel, it’s not even a good one. Interestingly, this book is based on true events. I enjoyed the character descriptions, including the rather vague details about final days for some of the main characters. I did not think the two storylines linked together well at all, but despite that I enjoyed the book very much. It has been years since I watched the Dr Zhivago movie but I will do so again soon. And I bought an Amazon Kindle version of the book which I will begin later in the year, all 706 pages.
What’s interesting about The Secrets We Kept is the way the story is told. There are the views from the East (Russia, told through the eyes of Olga, Boris Pasternak’s lover) and those of the West which come from the Agency, aka the CIA. The majority of the characters come from the West, and multiple chapters are devoted to the main characters, namely Irina and Sally. The third ‘character’ is the collective pool of typists at the Agency who speak as one (similar to the technique used in Whisper Network). I can’t say I love this way of telling a story, blending many voices into one omnipotent tone, but it’s not overly frequent and does give the reader an idea of the overall thoughts and ideals of that section. The overall premise of the story is relatively simple. Boris Pasternak is writing Doctor Zhivago, which goes against the collective ideas of Communist Russia. Authorities are not keen for him to finish it, let alone release it. But between Boris and his lover Olga, they manage to smuggle it out of the country and into Italy. The CIA is keen to try to infiltrate Russia any way possible and they believe that sharing literature is the way to get the Cold War in their favour. But the story is more than this. It’s the story of illicit love affairs, secrets and double identities.
Sometimes the individual characters overwhelm the spy plot in this novel. If you are expecting a dramatic Cold War novel with double crosses and secret identities, there isn’t much of that. It is primarily about Irina, a young woman who applies to the Agency as a typist, but is singled out for her skills and potential anger against Russia. (She comes from a Russian background). The story is as much about Irina’s personal growth as she discovers who she is and what she wants. To the collective typists, she is a mystery and to the reader, she is still somewhat of a mystery. Irina isn’t the type to lay herself bare (she does so very few times in the book) and occasionally it is difficult to understand her motivations. In contrast, Sally is much more of an open book, straightforward and cynical having lived the Agency life for years. I warmed to Sally more as a reader as she isn’t afraid to show her feelings, good or bad. Teddy, Irina’s boyfriend, starts off as an interesting character but is consigned to the background as the book continues. I know little about Boris and Olga (nor have I read Doctor Zhivago), so I don’t feel I can comment on how real people are portrayed in the book.
Overall, the story is incredibly entertaining. The writing style is straightforward, without hiding any secrets or red herrings. I found the drama dropped off a little after the book was distributed to the Russian people and became more of a story about the relationship between Sally and Irina. However, The Secrets We Kept is a solid debut novel that covers a little-known period of history.
Thank you to Penguin for the copy. My review is honest.
What an exceptionally fitting tagline for Lara Prescott’s enthralling novel set in the Cold War era! Told from multiple points of view, this story takes us from the deceptive calm of typing pool of the CIA to the warm hearth of Boris Pasternak’s cottage as he and his muse discuss his latest masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, unaware of the fate that would befall them because of it. The women of this story are far and above the masterminds, the moving forces, and the backbone of everything that transpires. It was absolutely a stunning page-turner of historical fiction, meticulously researched, and characters so masterfully fleshed out that you forget the “fiction” aspect entirely. When I closed the final pages, I was not ready to leave Olga, Sally, Irina, and the typists behind, despite the satisfying endings. Definitely one of my favorite reads of 2019!
Five heart-wrenching stars and a huge thank you to Book Browse, Lara Prescott, and A. A Knopf Publishing for supplying me with this advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
As if all of that were not already crazy enough, it turns out that America’s Central Intelligence Agency saw the book as a useful Cold War propaganda weapon. To that purpose, the Agency had the novel translated back into Russian and it produced just over 350 copies that would be handed off to vetted Russians traveling in the West. Lara Prescott’s historical novel, The Secrets We Kept, tells us just how that may have been accomplished – and what the results were.
Beginning in 1949 and ending in 1961, the story is told in alternating “East” and “West” segments. The “West” segments are told largely through the eyes of members of the CIA typing pool, a group of women who have trained themselves somehow to type documents without absorbing the real meaning of the words they put on paper. But not all of these women are what they seem – to a woman, for instance, they know much more about what is happening around them than their male superiors suspect they know. And they have secrets of their own, secrets with the potential to get people killed.
The “East” segments, at least until characters start to cross over, are narrated by Boris Pasternack’s mistress, a young woman who does several years of hard time in the Gulag because of her association with the author. Without her help and the secrets she keeps for him, it is unlikely that Pasternack would have successfully completed Dr. Zhivago. Olga may have sacrificed years of watching her two children grow up, but her love and support for Boris never wavered for long, and their relationship was a deep and meaningful one for both of them.
Favorite Quote: “They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons – that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the heart and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game.”
Bottom Line: The Secrets We Kept is based on an interesting piece of seldom discussed Cold War history, a period during which books and authors were important weapons in the propaganda war between Democracy and Communism. Lara Prescott has peopled the novel with a remarkable group of female characters that play key roles in the Doctor Zhivago story and how that novel became one of the key books of the twentieth century. As evidenced by the three-page bibliography at the end of The Secrets We Kept, this is a well-researched novel, one likely to appeal equally to fans of historical fiction and to fans of books about books. If you are a fan of both types, this is your lucky day.
Lara Prescott’s novel, The Secrets We Kept, recounts an equally engrossing story behind the publication of the book itself. Pasternak was already an established literary figure within the Soviet Union, celebrated for his poetry, and recognised by the regime to the extent of having an official dacha within Perelkino, the special compound reserved for writers whom the regime viewed favourably. His greatest work, Doctor Zhivago, brought that status under threat, with its caustic portrayal of the impact and aftermath of the Revolution. Indeed, it was soon evident that it could not be published openly within the USSR. A copy was smuggled out to Europe, and the first translation appeared in Italy, closely followed by others throughout the western world.
The Americans were quick to see the propaganda potential behind the book, and strove to publish a Russian version that might be smuggled back into the country. This novel revolves around that operation, telling the story from various perspectives (predominantly feminine), including from Olga, Pasternak’s lover and de facto agent, Irina, a Russian émigrée raised in Washington by her mother, and whose father had died in a Soviet prison camp during the 1930s, and Sally, an American intelligence officer who had undertaken various ‘honeytrap’ operations for the Office of Strategic Services (which metamorphosed into the CIA following the Second World War). Sally and irina work in the Soviet Russia section of the CIA, and become engaged with the plan to utilise Doctor Zhivago to propaganda effect.
The book also posits an intriguing contrast between the two superpowers. While the Americans sought to deploy Pasternak’s novel (with scant regard for the potential consequences for Pasternak himself) as a means of highlighting the lack of personal liberty within the Soviet Union, it was itself falling under the scrutiny of McCarthyism. Even officers and agents of the CIA, engaged in anti-Soviet operations, were not immune from the consequences of that campaign.
Lara Prescott was named after the leading female character of the book, and been intrigued by Doctor Zhivago for all her life. She has woven together an engaging tale that keeps the reader guessing at the next turn, even though the eventual outcome is well known. I felt tat times that there was not sufficient difference between the three narrative voices that tell the bulk of the story, but that did not prevent me from enjoying the book.
It has drawn a lot of press attention, having been the subject of a publishers’ bidding war. I am not convinced that all the publicity is really justified, but it is an enjoyable and interesting book. I didn’t know much about the background to the publication of Doctor Zhivago, and am grateful to feel more enlightened now.
Having survived the Cold War and lived to understand how tightly controlled Russian society was, it is difficult to bring importance to the story imparted in “The Secrets We Kept.” I admit to being a bit confused. It took a page or two into each chapter to identify who was speaking and what issue they were addressing. Pasternak and Ivinskaya are the story, all the other characters in the book were bit players with their own sidebars who moved the story along marginally. However, the letters that are written by Olga to her tormentors are absolutely brilliant and press the true issue of those times and the results of embracing one’s beliefs in the face of totalitarianism.
My general impression of the book was disappointment.
A lot of the book is based on fact, and the true parts of the story are very interesting on their own. Prescott has added an unexpected romantic relationship between the American spy and one of her handlers. The novel is as much about love as it is about spies.
All in all, an engaging novel that reflects on love, patriotism, the power of literature, and the nature of oppression, although none of these themes are explored in depth.
A fascinating and little-known piece of history. Thoroughly entertaining.
The Secrets We Kept tells the story of this novel through multiple narrators - the author's muse, Olga Ivinskaya, various CIA agents both men and women, and a Greek chorus of women in the Agency's typing pool. These multiple narrative voices can be confusing at times, but the story is compelling, as is the cold-blooded way agents of both the Soviet Union and the United States, manipulated the various players like pieces on a chessboard.
And, I suspect often happens, the women are very brave, the men full of privilege, and surprisingly in this telling of the story, Pasternak himself comes off as fairly clueless. This book makes me want to ferret out a copy of the novel, which is still in print, to see if it holds up sixty-two years after its publication
Alternate chapters tell of women in a typing pool in the early days of the CIA. The Cold War is at its height. A woman with a Russian accent, Irena, comes to work (she was born of Russian parents in the US) and is chosen to work as a spy. She is trained by another woman working at the CIA named Sally.
So there are really two stories happening. The relationship between Sally and Irena and the story of Boris and Olga.
After Pasternak finishes "Dr. Zhivago" it is first published by the Italians. The US decides that it can be a cultural weapon and work to get their hands on the book so that it can be smuggled into Russian for the Russian people to read. The World's Fair plays a part, the two women working undercover to deliver the book and then to get it back into Russia is interesting.
I wish I could have given this more stars; perhaps I just wasn't in the mood, but it just never really gripped me.
I am not impressed.
The women characters are pretty vapid apart from Olga, Pasternak's muse. However, even she is so far only defined by her relationship with Pasternak.
I don't know why, but I'm really noticing how this book would fail the Bechdel test in every scene so far.
Also, I'm not interested in the writing style. It's aggravatingly a lot like chick-lit and I also have issues with other aspects of the tone.
Pasternak, even while writing, knows that Zhivago will never be published in Russia because of it's anti-socialist ideals. What he could never have guessed is the CIA will plan a mission to distribute it around the world, though he could guess the response in Russia.
This is Prescott's first novel and I wasn't really hooked until I was at the halfway mark and by the end I was so glad to have read it. The beginning is awkward, I reread the first 50 pages but with a second reading got a handle on the way the book is organized. What a story!