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The Secrets We Kept is the debut novel by Lara Prescott, an Austin resident and graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Prescott must be pleased by the many signs of the novel’s success: robust sales, selection by Reese Witherspoon’s book club, arrangements for translation into 24 languages, plans for a film adaptation, and numerous speaking engagements for Prescott, including her forthcoming appearance at the April 2020 San Antonio Book Festival.
The Secrets We Kept reads like a labor of love, sparked by Prescott’s admiration for Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Barred from publication in the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy in 1957, translated into English and several other languages, and then smuggled into the Soviet Union by the CIA. Prescott became inspired to write The Secrets We Kept when in 2014 the CIA declassified memos and reports accompanying its clandestine mission to bring Doctor Zhivago to Soviet readers. These documents included blacked-out names and redacted details. In an author’s note, Prescott says she decided “to fill in the blanks with fiction.”
I’m glad she did. The Secrets We Kept features engaging storytelling, vivid characters, and refreshing appreciation for the value of literature and the arts. Prescott recreates the fascinating origins and reception of Doctor Zhivago, starting in 1949-1950 and concluding in 1960-1961. In reimagining this history, Prescott alternates between the Soviet Union and the West. The Soviet sections are told primarily from the point of view of Olga Vsevolodovna, Pasternak’s muse, lover, editor, and manager – but not his wife. Olga’s extraordinary devotion to Pasternak and his writing pits her against the Soviet authorities, who interrogate her about the manuscript-in-progress, imprison her for three years, and subject her to constant surveillance and intimidation, all in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep Pasternak’s “treasonous” novel from appearing in print.
The Soviet pressure on Pasternak intensifies when he is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for Doctor Zhivago – still not available in the Soviet Union. Even then, Pasternak cannot bring himself to leave his home country, despite being expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union, forced to turn down the prize, and pushed into apologizing to the government and the Soviet people. Olga remains loyal to him until his death in 1960, when she is imprisoned again, this time with her daughter. Through it all, she draws energy from her conviction that Doctor Zhivago, not its opponents, will have the final say. The love that Olga exemplified in her life will survive in the novel she helped make possible.
Meanwhile, as Olga’s heroic resistance is keeping Doctor Zhivago alive, efforts in the United States are underway to bring the book to Soviet citizens. Here, too, women play a major role. Prescott tells the American side of this captivating story mainly from the point of view of the women employed by the Agency (presumably the CIA), which is committed to promoting the novel. We hear from two of these women at length: Irina Drozdova, the daughter of a Russian immigrant, and Sally Forrester, who excels at extracting secret information from unsuspecting men. Under Sally’s tutelage, Irina’s role expands from typist to secret message carrier to banned-book distributor. Disguised as a nun at the 1958 World’s Fair, Irina helps distribute 365 copies of Doctor Zhivago to people who will get them into the Soviet Union.
The Agency is betting that when Soviet readers experience this novel, they will not only protest its being banned, they will also demand the democratic freedoms that the creation of great works of literature depends on. From this point of view, Doctor Zhivago is “not just a book, but a weapon” that the Agency wants “to obtain and smuggle back behind the Iron Curtain for its own citizens to detonate.” Moved by Pasternak’s novel, outraged readers will strike back against the repression that endangers the writing they love.
Whether describing life in the Soviet Union or in Washington, D.C., Prescott uses just enough historical detail to make her account seem credible without getting bogged down in too many period references. She does an especially good job showing how the women at the Agency find opportunities for love, growth, and professional advancement despite their male-dominated world, not because of it. This world is a far cry from Soviet totalitarianism, but it’s constraining and sometimes brutal nevertheless. Putting deeply felt aspirations on hold takes its toll on these women despite their resourcefulness.
Some works of historical fiction resemble time capsules full of curiosities that once meant something but no longer have much of an impact. The Secrets We Kept sticks with us, radiating with unabashed confidence in the power of literature to promote democratic values even in the most unreceptive places. I am sure some will find that confidence out of date or naïve. But The Secrets We Kept reminds us that literature can still play an indispensable role in helping us change our world.