A thrilling tale of secretaries turned spies, of love and duty, and of sacrifice—inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago.
Reviewers Jed and Palo are transported to the time of spies and secret missions, of the Soviet and the CIA. They share their thoughts on Lara Prescott’s debut novel about how stories—a piece of art, of literature—are capable of changing the world. Read more about it below.
Jed says: 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.
Palo says: Educated in the halls of Vassar, Radcliffe, and Smith. Can fly planes, converse in the notoriously difficult Mandarin, and can handle the cowboy staple Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. Yet the women who have all these skills are relegated to the typing pool—an unimaginable situation to us living in 2019, but in Lara Prescott’s bold debut novel The Secrets We Kept, the reality her characters have to live with constantly. Set in the early years of the CIA and the Cold War, the novel presents the treacherous, often thankless paths that women had to play behind the scenes.
Jed says: 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.
Palo says: Though there is nothing wrong with The Secrets We Kept being first and foremost a spy thriller—being a fan of bringing the secret history (or “herstory”) of women to the fore and highlighting the crucial roles they play in world events, I wish there were higher stakes. Sure, there is this sense of optimism that acquiring and redistributing Doctor Zhivago to Soviet citizens can turn the tide of the Cold War. But having the hindsight—and enough Cold War fiction and film—makes for an anticlimactic end. We know that the Soviets did not fall for decades following the Doctor Zhivago operation.
Jed says: 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.
Palo says: Overall, The Secrets We Kept is a terrific first novel—and even if you are not into Russian novels, the Cold War, or spies, it’s worth reading if only for the collective “we” perspective of the Typist Pool. Clever, snarky, sassy, and painfully aware of their second-class status on the basis of their sex—there’s a couple of chapters where the Typist Pool makes for a vivid, enjoyable take on 1950s workplace feminism.
The Secrets We Kept is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]