Review: A tale of literary Cold War espionage
"The Secrets We Kept" by Lara Prescott is really two stories, expertly spun together.
The first details the life of Olga Ivinskaya and her long-term relationship with Boris Pasternak, the author of "Doctor Zhivago." The second story relates the improbable American plot to undermine the Soviet Union by smuggling copies of "Doctor Zhivago" into the country. The book was banned in the USSR for its alleged criticism of the regime. There's an extra twist - the complex affair between two of the American spies, the beautiful Sally Forrester, and her protege, Irina, the daughter of Russian emigres.
Olga, Pasternak's mistress and muse, who was the inspiration for Lara in "Doctor Zhivago," is sentenced to five years in one of the Soviet Union's bitter and brutal gulags. Her crime? To have praised Pasternak's work, which is viewed as anti-establishment. The reality is that the state wants to use her as leverage against Pasternak. But his love for and loyalty to Olga are not as strong as her love for him. He sells the manuscript to an Italian publisher and the book is widely published in the West, to great acclaim.
Irina is recruited to the typing pool at the recently formed Central Intelligence Agency. The opening paragraphs of the book set the scene perfectly: The privilege of the men, the servitude of the women. The "girls," referred to by the men as Blondie or Red. But the women have secret names for the men, too. There's Grabber, Coffee Breath, and Teeth. And then there's Sally Forrester, who keeps herself a little apart from the group. Irina is intrigued by Sally, and is quickly drawn under her influence. She finds herself recruited to a level of work and secrecy well beyond that of the typing pool.
The book alternates geography and time periods, slowly bringing the disparate threads together in a beautifully woven masterpiece. It's superbly crafted, rich in detail, and subtle in plot. "The Secrets We Kept" will make you want to read or reread "Doctor Zhivago." It will certainly make you want to look out for Prescott's next book, whenever that might appear.
Lara Prescott received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. "The Secrets We Kept" is her debut novel. It has been translated into 28 languages. Prescott lives in Austin, Texas.
A small tip. If you do buy the book, be sure to remove the dust cover to reveal the beautiful cover hidden away underneath.
"The Secrets We Kept" is available at The Bennington Bookshop, or can be purchased online here: https://www.benningtonbookshop.com/book/9780525656159
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