A new novel inspired by CIA documents

Lara Prescott’s fictional debut opens dramatically with Soviet secret police arresting the mistress of Boris Pasternak. An interrogator demands Olga Ivinskaya reveal information about the great Russian author’s novel-in-progress, but Olga doesn’t respond with what he wants to hear, that the story criticizes the Socialist State.

I didn’t tell him that Borya had begun the novel before we met. That [the character] Lara was already in his mind—and that in the early pages, his heroine resembled his wife, Zinaida. I didn’t tell him that as time went on, Lara eventually became me. Or maybe I became her.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

In The Secrets We Kept, Prescott delivers vividly imagined historical fiction based on true events surrounding the publication of the famous novel Doctor Zhivago. During the Cold War era of the 1950’s, the Soviets fought to deny the existence of what they considered to be a subversive book, while the Americans took measures to use Doctor Zhivago as propaganda. Several first-person viewpoints tell Prescott’s story, but we primarily hear from three resolute women: Olga, Pasternak’s real-life mistress; and at the CIA, Irina, a Russian American secretary turned into a field agent, and her trainer, Sally, who’s a former World War II intelligence officer. The colorful narrative jumps back and forth between their stories in Moscow and Washington D.C. with parallel developments as the important Russian novel is suppressed and highly coveted. Not to be overlooked is the powerhouse of CIA secretaries whose collective observations of Agency life humorously enliven the story with catty gossip and glib remarks. It’s the “Mad Men” time of sexist behavior, which the typists make light of and manipulate to their advantage.

Sometimes they’d refer to us not by name but by hair color or body type: Blondie, Red, Tits. We had our secret names for them, too: Grabber, Coffee Breath, Teeth.

The Soviet police commit Olga to three years in a forced labor camp. When released, she resumes her life with Pasternak, who, newly inspired by her presence, completes Doctor Zhivago. Soviet authorities refuse to publish the epic novel and put the couple under surveillance. Pasternak, however, slips his manuscript to agents of an Italian publisher and Doctor Zhivago reaches an international readership.

Meanwhile, back at the CIA, Irina dates the handsome agent Teddy Helms but falls more passionately in love with her trainer Sally in what becomes the story’s most poignant love affair. When cleared for fieldwork, Irina gets assigned to the Zhivago mission – she impersonates a nun at Expo 58, the Brussels World’s Fair, where she distributes the book to visiting Soviets. The intent is to incite uproar among Pasternak’s fellow citizens over why Doctor Zhivago was banned, but the greatest uproar arrives later that year when Pasternak wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Reporters crowd into Pasternak’s front yard asking if he’ll accept the prize. Olga fears the repercussion.

…once the world looked away, once the headlines died down, then what? Who’d protect us? Who’d protect me?

Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958 for what the Swedish Academy praised as “his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” He sent a telegram to the Academy accepting the prize, but four days later, under pressure from the Soviet government, rescinded the acceptance. He also issued a pubic apology in the Soviet newspaper Pravada on Nov. 6, 1958, saying his acceptance of the prize had been “mistaken.” In Prescott’s story, Olga writes the letter for Pravda, and Pasternak signs it.

The Secrets We Kept is not meant to be serious espionage literature. It’s more entertainment with a breezy tone, vibrant prose and snappy dialogue. What it lacks in menacing danger, it makes up for in engaging storytelling that reveals a little-known literary moment in history. Prescott says her inspiration for the novel came in 2014 with the release of declassified CIA documents. In her author’s note she writes: the “blacked-out and redacted names and details … inspired me to want to fill in the blanks with fiction.”

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott is published by Alfred A. Knopf. A version of this review was broadcast in central Ohio on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.

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