The story of a story

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.


Nicholas and Alexandra

Robert K. Massie first wowed me with Catherine the Great. Have you read it yet? It is exquisite. When I finished that, I wanted to read more. I already have a more than healthy obsession with royalty and the Russian royals are some of the most extravagant. This time, I picked up Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

This book is incredibly sad. So so sad. You know how it’s going to end and no matter how much you want the ending to change, sooner or later you are going to have to read about those final months and then the horrifying conclusion and this knowledge colours the entire reading experience.

A lot has been written about Nicholas and Alexandra. He was a Tsar that didn’t care about his people, that was off playing soldier, leaving the important work of governing to his wife. She was a cold German who was alternatively in league with the Germans and at the mercy of a Russian peasant. You may have heard of Rasputin – Boney M has a pretty catchy song about him.

The real story is completely different. Nicholas and Alexandra were that rare royal marriage that was actually a love match. They cared deeply for each other and for their five children. Alexandra was an incredibly shy woman who didn’t have the gift of making small talk with strangers, so people thought she was a snob. In later years she was completely consumed by worry over the health of their only son, the Tsarevich Alexei, who was a hemophiliac. His childhood was a painful one and his parents were desperate for someone to cure him. Rasputin seemed like he had that power and that’s why Alexandra was so willing to do anything that he wanted.

If you’re hoping for answers to the legend of Rasputin…I don’t know that there are answers to be had. I still don’t know what to make of Rasputin.

This book was published in 1967 and there are moments when you have to stop and think about that. For us reading the book now, the events of the turn of the 20th century are not part of living memory. But for Massie, writing in the 1960s, people that were alive in 1917 were still around to tell the tale. Barely, but they were there. He sometimes relates the events of book to things that were happening when he was writing and it takes a minute to work through what he means. It doesn’t take away from the book at all, but it’s a bit of a curiosity.

I read somewhere that Massie first became interested in the Romanovs after his own child was diagnosed with hemophilia. The hemophilia of the Tsarevich becomes such a massive issue for the Romanov dynasty. There is no telling how events would have unfolded had Alexei not been a hemophiliac, or, if the Russian people had known about his condition. It was a closely guarded secret. One gets the sense that Massie has real empathy for his subjects, parents watching their child suffer so intensely, just like he has.

Sorry that this is such a downer post. If you are looking for an upbeat read, Nicholas and Alexandra is not for you. But if you’re in the right mindset, it’s an incredible biography and I really do recommend it. Not sure if I will tackle Peter the Great next – I don’t tend to read many biographies of men, but if I do, this would probably be near the top of the list.