“The Secrets We Kept,” the compelling debut novel from Lara Prescott, has already been called one of the most anticipated new books of the fall. It is an often-moving mash-up of recent political and literary history, cleverly arguing that art can be as important a weapon as firearms.
The book’s setting is the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s. Its plot is based on the true story of the CIA’s top-secret attempt to smuggle copies of “Doctor Zhivago,” Boris Pasternak’s masterwork banned in his own country, into the hands of Russian citizens. That mission, at least philosophically, seemed strongly to argue that art had the power to transform the world.
The novel plays out mostly through the eyes of three women — and one collective narrator — who in many ways are living the same lives from seemingly disparate environments.
In the East is Boris Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Vsevolodovna, a woman willingly treading the back streets of his life. It is she who is probably the basis for Lara, the spellbinding heroine of “Doctor Zhivago.” Trying to survive in Moscow with her son and daughter, Olga keeps secret the new novel Borya (her nickname for Pasternak) is frequently — and clandestinely — reading to his friends.
The state tries to force her to turn on Pasternak by sentencing her to “retraining” in the Soviet Gulag. When she is released after 3½ years, Olga still willingly remains her lover’s arbiter, recognizing that “instead of cooking and cleaning, I was the person who ushered his words out into the world. I became his emissary.”
In the West, Irina, the shy daughter of a Russian-born dressmaker, goes in search of a job in one of the government offices in Washington. The collective voice of that office’s secretaries — they are called The Typists — proudly says: “Our fingers flew across the keys. Our clacking was constant. We’d pause only to answer the phone or to take a drag of a cigarette; some of us managed to master both without missing a beat.”
Although her fingers hardly fly across her typewriter keys, Irina is hired at that office anyway and quickly falls for Teddy Helms, who, she says with rather portentous innocence, “resembled a movie star playing a spy.”
But the agency has other jobs in mind for Irina. She doesn’t stand out at all, and that is precisely the sort of “secretary” the Agency is looking for.
To effect Irina’s training, the agency assigns Sally Forrester. The complete opposite of Irina, red-haired, sophisticated Sally will tutor her protégée in the fine art of remaining invisible. Sally relishes “the power that came from being a keeper of secrets. It was a power that some, myself included, found more intoxicating than any drug, sex, or other means of quickening one’s heartbeat.” Yet even someone as assured as Sally is in danger of having the secrets of her professional life brush up against the secrets of her personal life.
What compels the novel forward is the mission to get “Doctor Zhivago” into the hands of the Russian populace. What results is at once a compelling espionage novel, an unexpected love story and a sort of feminist response to modern history.
Prescott nearly succeeds at bringing all of this off. If there is anything about which to cavil, it would be the sections exploring the relationship between Pasternak and Olga. Placed up against the energy of the sections that unfold in the West, the sections in Russia seem to fall short of the latter’s passion and drive (although the pages set in the Gulag are utterly terrifying).
“The Secrets We Kept” is always at its most potent, though, when it ponders the inherent power of books. As Lara Prescott reminds us early on in this riveting new novel: “They had their satellites, but we had our books. Back then we believed books could be weapons — that literature could change the course of history.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.