The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Title: The Secrets We Kept, Author: Lara Prescott The Secrets We Kept. Finished 11-6-19, rating 4/5 stars, fiction, 344 pages, pub. 2019

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 Goodreads

Are you a Dr. Zhivago fan?  If so this will fascinate you.  Never read or watched Dr. Zhivago?  It doesn’t matter – this novel is about so much more.  There was a time in the not too distant past that the United States government felt that great literature could change the world.  There were people devoted to making sure that books like Animal Farm, 1984 and yes, Dr. Zhivago made it into the hands of those behind the closed door of communist countries.  While Boris Pasternak’s epic novel was written in Russia it was not allowed to be printed there.

The 1950’s mission to get Dr. Zhivago out into the world is the stage but it’s really the stories of three women who carry the story.  In alternating chapters we hear from Olga, Pasternak’s mistress, who went to the Gulag for 3 years for her loyalty to the author, Sally, a seasoned CIA spy,  and Irina, who was chosen to do more than just type because of her Russian ancestry.  There was a fourth ‘narrator’, a woman from the typing pool who was able to fill in the details about the role of accomplished women in the CIA offices.

We read this for our book group last week and it led to great discussion about career women in the 50’s, the role of literature, hiding sexuality to keep your job, and many other issues that stemmed from these.  These women impressed me with their strength and intelligence.  I’m happy that I was able to read about this time in history when women were coming into their own and changing the world.  Now I need to go watch Dr. Zhivago again, or better yet read the book.