Reviewed by Jed Cruz
THE SECRETS WE KEPT
By Lara Prescott
368 pages. Knopf.
Lara Prescott begins The Secrets We Kept with an incredible opening chapter that gives the reader a glimpse into the experience of being part of the secretarial pool of the CIA’s Soviet Russia division. It is 1949 in Washington DC, and Cold War paranoia is slowly becoming a way of life for America. A nameless and faceless narrator (identified only with the collective name “The Typists”) describes the male-dominated office culture, and the Royal typewriters, and — most notably — the legendary women among their ranks who had served as far more than typists during the war, back when the CIA was the OSS: the Office of Strategic Services.
The handful of paragraphs about those women present such an interesting series of potential tales that it’s disappointing to no longer encounter any more mention of them for the rest of the novel.
The Secrets We Kept is an espionage story, but it’s not the type of Hollywood-flavored espionage that many might imagine. There are no shootouts, stabbings, or strangulations. There’s very little violence of any kind. There’s a lot of surreptitious passing of notes and information back and forth. The war being fought between east and west is one of ideals and perception, and the story’s object of contention is not a doomsday weapon, but Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago. Russia has banned the novel’s publication because of anti-Soviet ideas, and the CIA, seeing its potential as a powerful weapon, wants the manuscript.
A third of the novel is told from the point of view of Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya, beginning with her being arrested by the KGB for her involvement with Pasternak and the book he is writing. The Russian chapters — always prefaced by the heading “The East” in the book — are bleak and almost alien. They offer insight into the climate in which Doctor Zhivago was written. Olga spends three years in the gulag, and her role in the story only truly begins after her release.
Olga’s tale stands in sharp contrast to “The West” chapters of the book, which center around Irina, an American child of Russian immigrants, and the latest addition to the CIA typing pool. The Agency’s higher-ups see potential in her and begin grooming her as an information carrier. She begins to develop a close bond with her trainer, OSS veteran Sally Forrester, and then The Secrets We Kept suddenly reveals that it has also been a love story all along. Irina’s clandestine career will eventually get her involved with Doctor Zhivago. Her involvement with Sally predictably complicates matters.
The parallel between this novel and the real-life novel Doctor Zhivago will not be lost on its readers: war, love, and the tragedy of being imprisoned by the ideology and culture of the time. The Secrets We Kept tells such an interesting and believable story about the CIA’s efforts to secure — and then disseminate — the novel that it’s almost okay to overlook the fact that the laser focus on just a handful of characters robs the reader of the other tales that were tantalizingly teased in the first chapter. This is especially disappointing because Irina and Sally are very two-dimensional characters, especially compared to the more complex portrayals of real-life historical figures Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak.
The Secrets We Kept is the sum of several parts: a well-written account of a real mission undertaken by the CIA, a unique point of view into Cold War-era spycraft, a dark look at life in post-war Soviet Russia, and a love story between two unsympathetic characters. It’s still a great read for fans of history and espionage, but one of these things is not like the others.
The Secrets We Kept is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]