By Lara Prescott, A love story about a CIA plot to smuggle Doctor Zhivago into Russia
The Secrets We Kept is a much-anticipated debut novel from Lara Prescott, mostly because Knopf paid $2 million at auction in order to acquire the rights to publish the novel. It was also selected as Reese Witherspoon’s September 2019 book club pick.
I knew I’d be reading it as soon as I heard about it, mostly because (as I’ve mentioned a bunch of times on this blog) I’ve always been fascinated by Russian history and culture. Add in some espionage and a love story, and it’s a pretty easy sell.
The Secrets We Kept is a fictionalized account of the Zhivago Affair, the CIA’s “soft propaganda” plot during the Cold War to distribute the book Doctor Zhivago to people in Russia.
Its author, Boris Pasternak, was the most famous living poet in Russia during his lifetime, but his masterwork had been banned due to its anti-Soviet sentiments. While Doctor Zhivago is at heart a love story between its two leading characters, Yuri and Lara, its plot contains elements of criticism of the Red State. By smuggling in and distributing copies of the banned book, the CIA hoped to inspire anger and catalyze dissent among the USSR populace.
The Secrets We Kept mixes an account of the CIA’s espionage activities with some romance as well as with the story of Boris Pasternak and his mistress Olga Ivinskaya, who Pasternak modeled the character of Lara after.
See it on Amazon.
Do you need to have read or watched Doctor Zhivago to read The Secrets We Kept?
Short answer: Nope. Longer Answer: I have a vague memory of seeing the movie a long time ago, and I mostly remembered it as a movie with some very cold Russian people. It didn’t impact my ability to understand or enjoy this book, though I assume people who particularly love the movie or book with get an extra kick out of it.
Book Review: The Good Stuff
The basic plot of this book will be undeniably appealing to book lovers. The idea that the CIA believed enough in the power of books that they thought their ideas could help to bring down the Soviet government would almost seem like a far-fetched fantasy if it weren’t for the fact that this actually happened.
From the CIA plot to the romantic story line and Olga’s time in prison, the book juggles quite a few things, all of which are interesting narratives in their own right. Prescott does a good job of tying these into a story that feels coherent for the most part.
I appreciated Prescott’s careful recounting of Boris, Olga and their imperfect relationship. For example, in her characterization of Boris Pasternak, she neither demonizes or lionizes him, instead drawing what feels like a realistic portrait of a prideful and often selfish man who wrote a great work of literature. Olga’s story is similarly not entirely satisfying or neat, but history rarely is, and I’m glad Prescott didn’t distort it to present a tidier end for her narrative. To me that’s what’s makes this type of story interesting. We’re left with the reminder that she lives on as Lara (this isn’t a spoiler, we know this from the first chapters), but whether or not that makes her sacrifices worth it is for the reader (or your book club!) to mull over.
As Prescott acknowledges at the end, there are a number of non-fiction books on the Zhivago affair, about Olga and Boris and about other Cold War topics. (The Zhivago Affair and Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago are two popular ones.) But to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have even considered glancing at most of them without a gentler introduction to the topic. Instead, The Secrets We Kept presents an accessible and entertaining entryway into a riveting part of history.
Book Review: Some Criticisms
Seeing as how I did really enjoy the book, most of my criticisms are about wanting just a little more from it.
I wish that Prescott had given more context to the events of her novel. With the exception of a few scant details, much of the history leading up to or outside the direct realm of the scope of the events is infrequently referenced. Knowing things like how the Zhivago Affair progressed relative to other anti-Soviet CIA activities or having a better sense of the historical context would have amped up the drama in the novel. I felt like I had to rely on a lot of my pre-existing knowledge about the Cold War and post-Revolutionary Russia to fill in the details.
For example, even when it comes to the book in question, Doctor Zhivago, there’s very little that’s discussed about its contents. We know the CIA wants to distribute it, but what about it really spoke to them or to the Russian people is sidestepped. I was surprised at how little I know about the actual novel after reading this whole book.
I guess the flip side of that is that the book doesn’t get bogged down in too many names, dates, government policy changes and other minutiae, but I personally would have preferred a little more minutiae and factual details. I think about how expertly Amor Towles wove in information about the geo-political context of The Gentleman in Mosow, and The Secrets We Kept seems to pale in comparison.
Similarly, when Prescott references many books she used as sources, she highlights one about the persecution of LGBTQ people during the Cold War, The Lavender Scare. However, the actual coverage of that topic in the book feels very light and somewhat surface-level. In general, I just kept feeling like this book was in need of supplemental information.
I also wish that Prescott had included a section discussing the history vs. fiction in this book, similar to the acknowledgements section of The Huntress and other historical fiction books. I would have loved to find out more about some of the direct quotes or colorful details that were pulled directly from historical accounts.
The Secrets We Kept Movie / Series Adaptation
As you might expect from a book that fetches a cool $2 mil at auction, the film rights have already been sold. While the project is in its infancy, the producers behind it (The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions) are very legit (Marc Platt produced La La Land, for example) so if this ends up happening, it’ll definitely be something to keep on your radar.
For all the details, see Everything We Know about the Secrets We Kept Movie.
Read it or Skip it?
Even though I was left wanting more from the book, like more historical context or more information on the historical accuracy of the events, overall it was still an enjoyable read about a riveting slice of history.
I think historical fiction fans will enjoy this book. Also, because it’s an accessible and fun read with an intriguing premise, this will be a good general read for book clubs trying to find something to suit the varying tastes of their members.
What do you think? Is this something you’d consider reading? See it on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
The Typists. The book introduces the Typists, women who work in the Soviet Russia Division of the CIA as typists and secretaries, typing up memos, reports, dictations and the like.
Chapter 1 (East, 1949 – 1950)
The Muse. Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya is arrested and taken to Lubyanka, a Moscow prison, due to her affair with Boris “Borya” Leonidovich Pasternak, Russia’s most famous living poet who is currently writing a novel entitled Doctor Zhivago. Olga has two children, Ira and Mitya, and is also pregnant with Boris’s child. Boris is married to another woman, Zinaida. He lives in the writers colony of Peredelkino, which Stalin set up to support the arts but also to monitor Russia’s writers.
In prison, she is often interrogated at night by Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov about Doctor Zhivago, which they are concerned is anti-Soviet. Doctor Zhivago is a fictional love story between characters, Yuri and Lara. Boris calls Olga his muse and has partially modeled Lara after her.
Months later, someone Olga knows (Sergei Nikolayevich Nikiforov) has been tortured into giving a confession, stating that he has overheard Olga and Boris having anti-Soviet conversations and that they are planning to escape abroad. Olga miscarries, and soon she is sentenced to 5 years in a reeducation camp in Potma.
Chapters 2 – 4 (West, Fall 1956)
The Applicant. Irina “Irene” Drozdov applies for a typist position with the CIA. Her mother is a Russian immigrant. Her father was a professor. Irina believes he died in a Russian gulag, but the CIA informs her that he died before that while being interrogated. Irina gets a second interview despite performing poorly on her typing test.
The Typists. The typists are overseen by Walter Anderson. Irina gets brought in as the new hire and immediately is told to meet with Frank Wisner, the “big boss under the big boss.”
The Swallow. Sally Forrester was a intelligence officer during WWII. She was known as a Swallow, pretty women tasked with getting information. She attends a reunion with officers she worked with along with their former boss, Frank Wisner. Frank approaches her about working with him again on an operation involving a book.
Chapters 5 – 7 (East, 1950 – 1955)
The Rehabilitated Woman. Olga describes her time in the gulag, digging holes and working fields and the difficult conditions. When Stalin dies, Olga’s sentence is reduced to three years. When she is released, Olga is reunited with Borya.
The Cloud Dweller. Boris writes at his desk which once belonged to his friend who was taken away during the Purges that took place under Stalin a decade ago. Upon news of Olga’s release, he decides to break things off with Olga, but when he goes to tell her, he changes his mind.
The Emissary. With Olga back, they resume their affair and Boris writes feverishly. Olga starts to take on the role of his agent, taking meetings and managing contracts on behalf. Olga moves into a house close to the dacha Boris shares with his wife in Peredelkino. This requires her to be separated from her children, whose school is in Moscow, on weekdays. Boris completes his book, though they have trouble finding a publisher due to its subversive content.
Chapters 8 – 9 (West, February – Fall 1957)
The Carrier. Irina is not just a typist at the CIA, but also a Carrier. She goes undercover to pick up or deliver things. She’s later told that her father’s death made her a good candidate because that sort of anger “ensures a type of loyalty to the Agency that patriotism never can.” Irina meets with Theodore “Teddy” Helms for her assignments. Teddy suggests pretending they’re dating so others don’t suspect anything when they’re seen together.
The Typists. Tensions are high at the Agency after the Russians launch Sputnik into space. Sputnik II later launches. Part of the Agency’s plan to combat the Soviet threat involves soft propaganda to capture the hearts and minds of the Russian people. By finding ways to distribute banned books and other cultural materials, they hope to convince them that the Red State prevents free thought. Publishing companies and literary magazines are founded to serve as fronts. When Doctor Zhivago comes along, the CIA thinks it will be a game-changer and is determined to smuggle it into Russia and distribute it.
Chapters 10 – 11 (East, 1955 – 1956)
The Agent. Sergio D’Angelo is an Italian literary agent who has been sent to Russia by his employer, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, to find the next literary classic. He meets with Pasternak about Doctor Zhivago. Under Khruschev, there’s been a “thawing” of restrictions, but Pasternak is sure publication of his book will not be allowed in Russia. It has been pending approval for months. Still, Pasternak hands over his book to be translated into Italian, which Sergio then delivers to Feltrinelli.
The Emissary. When Olga finds out that Pasternak handed over the book, Olga is worried the government will come for them if the book is published, even outside the USSR, without Soviet approval. She demands the return of the manuscript, but Sergio says it’s too late. Boris later signs a contract with Sergio. Boris is told to ask for the manuscript back or be arrested, which he does at Olga’s request, but it is ignored by Feltrinelli (who has previously been told to ignore anything not written in French).
Chapters 12 – 18 (West, Fall 1957 – August 1958)
The Carrier. Teddy and Irina gradually become a real couple. Sally Forrester is brought in as a “receptionist” and takes over overseeing Irina’s spy work, furthering Irina’s spy training and befriending her.
The Swallow. They want to bring Irina in on the book project. Sally and Irina grow even closer. Sally tells Irina of her dream of running a bookstore. Sally is gay and feels a connection with Irina. When the Italian version of Doctor Zhivago (Il dottor Živago) is to be released, Sally attends the release party to gather intel and a copy of the book. Sally meets a strange man there and later discovers a business card for Sara’s Dry Cleaners tucked into her book.
The Company Man. Teddy is in charge of securing books with anti-Soviet, pro-U.S. messages. He travels to London to discuss a copy of Doctor Zhivago in its original Russian that MI6 (British Intelligence) has gotten ahold of. They agree to hand it over soon.
The Swallow. Sally and Irina’s relationship turns sexual, but Irina has also accepted Teddy’s marriage proposal. Sally also suspects that Henry Rennet, Teddy’s best friend, is a mole. At a New Year’s Party, Henry confronts Sally about her suspicions and then rapes her in a closet. Walter sees her disheveled state, but says nothing. Sally feels used and that she was never part of their Boy’s club. She memorizes the address of Sara’s Dry Cleaners, recognizing it as an invitation to be a double agent.
The Typists. The typists recall realizing Irina was being trained for espionage work and reflect on how they saw Sally, hinting that she will later be exposed.
The Carrier. Irina is sent to pick up the Russian Doctor Zhivago. Afterwards, she meets up with Sally who breaks things off with her. Irina finds herself losing her appetite for food and life in general following her conversation with Sally. Based on the gossip floating around, she suspects Sally is now interested in Henry. Irina’s mother gets sick and passes away.
Chapter 19 (East, May 1958)
The Mother. It’s been six months since Doctor Zhivago’s Italian publication, and Olga’s children are certain they are being watched, as is she. Meanwhile, Borya is only concerned with his book and seeing it translated into more languages. Olga’s children comment on Borya’s unwillingness to marry her.
Chapters 20 – 21 (West, August – September 1958)
The Typists. Soon, the CIA has printed up 365 copies of the book in Russian bound in blue linen, preparing to distribute them to Russian attendees of the World’s Fair. As the typists socialize with Teddy and Henry, Henry mentions that Sally is about to be fired for homosexuality. Soon, Irina breaks off her engagement with Teddy. Teddy disappears for a week, and when he returns, he punches Henry in the face. Irina leaves and never returns.
The Nun. Irina meets with Ivanna in a chapel in Brussels. Ivanna has experience distributing forbidden materials in Russia. The hope is to incite an uproar in the USSR about why Doctor Zhivago was banned. At the World’s Fair, blue linen covers litter the floor as the recipients attempt to hide the books.
Chapter 22 (East, September – October 1958)
The Prizewinner. Boris is awarded the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago. Boris and Olga hope they will be safe with the world’s eyes on him. Boris’s friends warn him that he must renounce the prize or be punished, but he accepts it.
Chapter 23 (West, October – December 1958)
The Informant. Sally follows Henry to Paris and sends his name and location to Sara’s Dry Cleaners. A dozen white roses are sent to her, to acknowledge receipt of the information. Soon, she gets word that they’ve taken him.
Chapter 24 (East, October – December 1958)
The Emissary. The blowback for the Nobel is intense, with the Kremlin issuing a response and newspapers labeling him a traitor. Student are required to attend “demonstrations” against the book. Boris is expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union. Boris fears they will come for him, contemplates suicide and tries to convince Olga to do the same, though she refuses. Finally, Boris rescinds his acceptance and refuses the Nobel.
Chapter 25 (West, December 1958)
The Defector. Sally is broke and her revenge is not fulfilling. She meets with the strange man she met at the party, who believes she can be an asset to them and is willing to compensate her accordingly.
Chapter 26 (East, January 1959)
The Postmistress. The book has now been republished 12 times in Italian, and the film rights have been sold in Hollywood. Meanwhile in Russia, Boris is denigrated publicly and no longer permitted to receive mail. Still, Boris refuses to even try to leave Russia, which he considers his home. Olga, instead, receives mail on his behalf. Finally, Olga convinces Boris to write a letter to Khrushchev, begging for forgiveness, and then to the public to be printed in the newspaper, apologizing to the people.
Chapter 27 (West, Summer 1959)
The Student. Irina remains abroad in her work distributing Doctor Zhivago and stays with the CIA long after her work on the Zhivago affair is long over. She thinks of Sally.
Chapter 28 (East, 1960 – 1961)
The Almost Widow. Boris is now having health troubles. He pens a play and gives it to Olga to help support her after his death. His funeral is well-attended but ended abruptly by authorities. Olga never sees Zinaida, his wife, again after the funeral. Two months after Boris’s death, they come for Olga. She is sentenced to eight years, and her daughter Ira is sentenced to three years.
The Typists. Teddy ends up marrying another one of the typists, Norma. The film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago is released in 1965. In 1988, Boris is posthumously re-awarded the Nobel, and his son accepts on his behalf. Many years later, an 89-year-old woman has been arrested for leaking secrets to the Soviets and is awaiting extradition to the United States. It’s Sally. She’d been running a rare books shop for the last fifty years along with an unnamed woman.
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