Educated in the halls of Vassar, Radcliffe, and Smith. Can fly planes, converse in the notoriously difficult Mandarin, and can handle the cowboy staple Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. Yet the women who have all these skills are relegated to the typing pool—an unimaginable situation to us living in 2019, but in Lara Prescott’s bold debut novel The Secrets We Kept, the reality her characters have to live with constantly.
Set in the early years of the CIA and the Cold War, the novel presents the treacherous, often thankless paths that women had to play behind the scenes. As the race for superiority between the United States and the Soviet Union begins to pick up, a poet—and his long-suffering paramour—is unwittingly caught in the crosshairs of both parties as he pens and publishes his magnum opus Doctor Zhivago.
Meanwhile, a young Russian-American woman, Irina, joins the typist pool of the Agency’s Soviet Russia Division. Brought up by a widowed immigrant mother, she is as plain as she could be—and this attracts the attention of her higher ups, who leverage her inconspicuousness to deploy her in the operation to retrieve Pasternak’s manuscript.
A perfect foil to Irina, Sally Forrester is a Swallow whose flashy nature, red hair, and wit brings her to the fore in every situation. Sally and Irina become fast friends, with the former instructing the latter on transforming herself to suit the requirements of her mission.
The novel unfolds not unlike the great Russian novels the author is clearly smitten by (Prescott is supposedly named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago), and it takes readers from the barren, poetic beauty of the Russian Motherland to the busy, bustling streets of the “West” where Agents can blend in easily with the crowd as they go on with their covert business. The reimagining of the trials and triumph of real-life characters Boris Pasternak (the poet) and Olga Ivinskaya add a dramatic, historical touch to what could easily be dismissed as a spy thriller.
Though there is nothing wrong with The Secrets We Kept being first and foremost a spy thriller—being a fan of bringing the secret history (or “herstory”) of women to the fore and highlighting the crucial roles they play in world events, I wish there were higher stakes. Sure, there is this sense of optimism that acquiring and redistributing Doctor Zhivago to Soviet citizens can turn the tide of the Cold War. But having the hindsight—and enough Cold War fiction and film—makes for an anticlimactic end. We know that the Soviets did not fall for decades following the Doctor Zhivago operation.
Overall, The Secrets We Keptis a terrific first novel—and even if you are not into Russian novels, the Cold War, or spies, it’s worth reading if only for the collective “we” perspective of the Typist Pool. Clever, snarky, sassy, and painfully aware of their second-class status on the basis of their sex—there’s a couple of chapters where the Typist Pool makes for a vivid, enjoyable take on 1950’s workplace feminism.
The Secrets We Kept is available at Fully Booked stores and Fully Booked Online.
Palo Garcia is a writer by trade and a book hoarder at heart. She hopes to one day conquer the behemoth that is her to-be-read pile. She sometimes talks about books and films on social media (@palollibee on Twitter and Instagram).
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]