The Secrets We Kept is a crackling, female-centered spy thriller rooted in real life
If biology is destiny, maybe biography is, too; Lara Prescott’s parents named her for the heroine of Boris Pasternek’s Nobel-prize-winning 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, and now she’s centered her crackling debut around the covert Cold War efforts to alternately halt (on the Soviet side) and help (on America’s) its publication.
Unlike her namesake, though, women live fully at the center of Secrets; mistresses, secretaries, and aspiring agents who may have lived their lives in the margins, but saw everything. New hire Irina Drosdova is a cool, self-contained blonde with a Russian birth certificate but no real memories of the motherland; agency veteran Sally Forrester is a Jessica Rabbit sexpot with years of overseas experience in the field; how their (fictional) escapades converge with the true story of Pasternek’s struggle to get Zhivago out into the world — and more specifically, the considerable sacrifices that entailed from his longtime lover and muse, Olga Ivinskaya — form the narrative center of the novel.
At least as much as there can be said to be a center: In alternating chapters, the book toggles between East and West across more than a decade, dropping in on multiple pulse points of the so-called “soft-propaganda warfare” — a battle waged to win over the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens by giving them access to the rogue homegrown art and literature their government denied them.
Really, though, it’s about the women who fought alongside (but officially of course, largely below) the men on that fight’s front lines, scheming and strategizing and even finding the time to fall in love, sometimes with one another. The whirl of trench coats and cocktails and midnight meetings on park benches has the heady whiff of classic old-fashioned spy storytelling, but filtered, too, through Prescott’s thoroughly modern lens. And the result is something like a protofeminist Mad Men transposed to the world of international espionage — all excellent midcentury style and intrigue set against real, indelible history. A–
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