Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.
You know, when Reese Witherspoon first started her book club I may have rolled my eyes a little. But damn it if she doesn’t pick excellent books!
One of her picks was Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, a Cold War spy story about the publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Despite not having read Doctor Zhivago myself, I really really enjoyed reading the story of how it came to be.
The novel follows a number of points of view over the course of a few years – the group of typists in the States who are able to piece together parts of the story, Olga, Boris Pasternak’s mistress who spends years in the Gulag for her refusal to tell anyone about his work, Boris himself, Irina, an American-born Russian girl who goes to work as a typist before engaging in extra-curricular activities, and Sally, a woman who worked in the Secret Service during the war who has come back to help out on specific missions. Prescott uses these different POVs to create a layered multi-dimensional tale that I breezed through in a day.
Despite the many POVs in this novel, or maybe because of it, the story isn’t really about the characters. Oh, you get to know their histories and what happens to them, but they really only matter insofar as they are involved in this mission. I would have liked more information about the Russian side of things, in terms of why this book was deemed so subversive to the State but I guess that’s why nonfiction exists. The Secrets We Kept is the story about getting this one book out of Russia and into the hands of Russians.
I’ve seen mixed reviews of this book and it sounds like that comes down to expectations. Those who came to this novel expecting a straight-forward spy tale seem to be annoyed with the romantic entanglements that are also a part of it. I’m not sure why anyone would be irritated at getting more story but to each their own. Were some of the Russian sections a touch dramatic? Sure, but Russian literature is pretty dramatic! I thought Prescott did an amazing job telling this really crazy spy story while also letting her characters tell their own stories. Plus, how often do you get a lesbian love story in a spy novel? Not often enough!
I didn’t know anything about the publication of Doctor Zhivago and now I keep thinking about what an extraordinary sacrifice was made so that this book could see the light of day. And how I really need to read it ASAP.
The Secrets We Kept is a great book for a vacation read, or a cozy indoor day. It was a book that I read at the exact right time and there’s no better feeling than that.