The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott is a mixture of Cold War thriller, romance and the true story of the publication of Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Set in the 1950s, this novel is about the power of the written word. So powerful that two nations try to outwit the other as a big new novel is set to be published; neither has any regard for the effects of their plans on the author.
The two worlds are radically different, Prescott builds both convincingly. I can see Pasternak’s vegetable garden at his dacha, I can hear the typewriters in the Typing Pool at The Agency on National Mall in Washington DC. It is important to note that this is a blend of real events, real people and total fiction.
Irina is American, a first generation Russian-American, her father left behind in the Soviet Union as his pregnant wife departed for a new life in America. Irina’s Mama is a dressmaker, speaking Russian to Irina at home while making elaborate dresses for Russian immigrants. Irina never meets her father. Always an outsider, when she goes for a job interview in a typing pool Marla wears a skirt made for her by Mama. She gets the job in the Typing Pool at The Agency (the CIA) because she has something different to offer; she is trained for extra duties in the evening, acting as a messenger and learning tradecraft to avoid detection. Her job is at The Agency’s Soviet Russia Division, the ‘SR’.
In Moscow, Boris Pasternak is writing a novel and reading it aloud to his lover, Olga. One day Pasternak, deemed a threat by the authorities, is sent a warning: Olga is sent to a work camp for three years. When she returns home, his novel is finished. It is Dr Zhivago.
The Secrets We Kept is a fascinating read, a glimpse into the true story of Dr Zhivago’s publication and the role of the CIA in disseminating it to Soviet citizens. Structurally the pace did not hold up and slowed each time the story moved to Boris and Olga. But some interesting areas are covered – the treatment of homosexuals in the workplace and sexual manipulation between the ranks, the assimilation of first generation Americans, and the American obsession with communism.
Set at the time of Sputnik, Prescott is good at the contemporary culture, politics and the atmosphere of rivalry and impending threat of the Soviet Union. The clothes, the food, the films, the parties. The typists see and hear but don’t repeat, but are as capable of analysing and doing the jobs that the men are doing.
The ending fizzled out, perhaps because the book tries to do so much, possibly too much.
If you haven’t read Dr Zhivago, BUY IT HERE.
If you like this, try:-
‘An Officer and a Spy’ by Robert Harris
‘The Translation of Love’ by Lynne Kutsukake
‘The Museum of Broken Promises’ by Elizabeth Buchan
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THE SECRETS WE KEPT by Lara Prescott #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4tg via @SandraDanby