“The Secrets We Kept” By Lara Prescott; Knopf, Borzoi Books, Random House, 2019; $26.95
In the 1950s, could a love story be weaponized against the Soviet Union to win hearts and minds in the Cold War? The Central Intelligence Agency thought so — and set out to employ “Dr. Zhivago” against the USSR.
First-time novelist Lara Prescott has used this idea as the premise for “The Secrets We Kept.” She grabs the reader’s imagination and holds on tight for a look behind the true-life plan that saw Boris Pasternak’s Nobel-winning book smuggled out of the Soviet Union, translated into Italian then back into Russian — and furtively distributed for return to the USSR.
“The Secrets We Kept” focuses on three women, Irina Carrier and Sally Forrester, who work for the CIA, and Olga, Pasternak’s long-time mistress. Irina, the shy daughter of a Russian immigrant, is plucked from the obscurity of the typing pool by spymasters who see her potential as a courier. Sally is Irina’s total opposite: a strikingly beautiful woman who attracts every eye when she enters a room.
And Olga is a faithful lover, true to Pasternak, enduring years in a Gulag prison camp and the knowledge that he will never leave his wife, even as he immortalizes Olga as the inspiration for Lara, a central character in “Dr. Zhivago.”
Prescott employs the women of the typing pool as a Greek Chorus, watching and commenting on the action of the principals. These women are not empty-headed gossips. Most of them worked for the agency during World War II, facing dangers untold and unsung. As women, they don’t qualify for jobs in the post-war agency, but are relegated to the typing pool where “fast fingers keep secrets.” They are adept watchers, who miss little and say less about the intrigue that surrounds them in the office.
At first, Irina is in awe of Sally, who has been brought in to teach the fledgling spy the ins and outs of carrying classified documents without attracting attention. The two women become friends, then lovers, a risky relationship in that time and place.
The idea of putting an important work of Russian literature to Soviet readers is a very real part of Cold War history. The plan, “to get cultural materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means,” was revealed by the CIA in recent years and has been the subject of non-fiction books, but Prescott has imaginatively blended fact and fiction to tell the story as it was and as it might have been. She has structured the action through a cast of fascinating characters, each chapter focusing on one point of view and reflecting the various roles the character has played in the action.
“The Secrets We Kept” is an engaging read that will involve individual readers and would certainly inspire lively discussion for a book club. It’s a great choice for reading on a wintry weekend.
— Emporia Public Library staff and volunteers write “On the Shelf.”