The Secrets We Kept

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So much fuss about a book....

The book in question is Doctor Zhivago. Banned by the Russians afraid of its subversive power, it's the ideal weapon for the Americans to use to tip the balance of the Cold War.

And so the mission is, on the face of it, very simple: smuggle it back into the Soviet Union. And the agents charged with this are two typists
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For the highly educated women working in the department the typing pool was the only opportunity they’d get to use their skills and intelligence but for the lucky few there was more. Irina was one of the lucky ones, groomed as a carrier she was included in a mission to send a novel behind the Iron Curtain. The novel was ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and it was banned in Russia due to seditious content. As Pasternak’s lover and muse Olga had suffered for her love, sent to the Gulags for three years she still returned to Pasternak on her release even though she knew that ‘Doctor Zhivago’ could cause major problems.
This is the story of women on each side of the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s, all of them suppressed because of their sex but with the intelligence and independence to try to fight it. I loved this book because it told a powerful story of women in their many guises and the way that women work together to change the world. The only slight negative for me was the love story between Irina and Sally, it felt one step too far and muddying a clear narrative although it provide the plot incentive for Sally’s subsequent actions, however that it to caste a small aspersion on a great book. It is period perfect with clever detailing both of life in Moscow and the dachas but also in Washington. Prescott writes clear and neat prose and the story skips along despite jumping from country to country. Pasternak himself is almost and aside and yet his writing is central to the entire story – this is sophisticated and mature plotting.

NB Review copy through Lovereading
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The Secrets We Kept turned out to be not quite the story I imagined. Although a slow read through quite a tome, there were some fascinating elements. I never realised that Doctor Zhivago was used to gently destabilise the communist hold on Russia, although I can see the logic. Aspects of tradecraft which although fascinating, caused me to wonder whether they were strictly necessary bearing in mind what and where they were passing ‘secrets’. The life laid bare in the typing pool was very well described and humiliating for women who had served their country so bravely but a few years before. An insightful and instructive work.
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I really wanted to love this book but hard as I tried it just wasn’t possible. It felt as though there were a number of stories running side by side. I kept thinking that the stories would overlap but sadly they didn’t.  I finished the book but was disappointed unfortunately.
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This might not be the straight-forward spy novel some readers expect but the tale of female CIA-spies in the 1950ies and 60ies is captivating and the charcaters are engaging and convincing. And as a bonus: the story of Boris Pasternak and his most famous novel, Doktor Zhivago. I loved it!
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Thank you to Netgalley, and to publisher for an advance ARC in return for an honest review.

I have more than a passing interest in 20th Century Russian history the fact that this is about how the CIA got Dr Zhivago published in the west was right up my street.  

The story is more than just Dr Zhivago though, it’s about the role of women in the CIA in the 1950, and the exclusion of the LGBT community.  Really this is two stories set in the West and East and interconnected by Dr Zhivago (a book I have never read).  

In Russia we follow the authors and his writing of the novel, and his oppression by the State after the novel’s publication in the East.  I don’t know if it was the writing, but I really did not like the author finding him far too much a narcissist for my liking.  I really felt that if I had been his wife, or his mistress, I would have walked from him years ago.  

In America we follow the CIA, and in particular the woman who worked for them both in the typing pool and as spies.  

The only reason this novel gets 4 stars and not 5 is that it seemed to fizzle out at the end.  Definitely recommend though, and I found myself downloading Dr Zhivago
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My thanks to Random House U.K. Cornerstone/Hutchinson for an eARC via NetGalley of Lara Prescott’s ‘The Secrets We Kept’ in exchange for an honest review. It was published on 5th September 2019. My apologies for the late review. 

As its audiobook edition was available I elected to buy it and listen alongside reading the ebook. It was read by seven narrators, each taking one of the narrative viewpoints within the novel. 

Set during the Cold War this work of historical fiction tells the story of the writing of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ by Boris Pasternak and how after being prohibited from publication in Russia its manuscript was smuggled to Italy. Later it became a weapon of propaganda used by the C.I.A..

The author moves between the East and West and utilises a number of narrative voices to tell the story; including those of Pasternak’s muse and mistress, Olga Ivlinskaya, and a number of women working at the Agency, some as typists and others as active agents involved in the operation.

While I knew that ‘Doctor Zhivago’ had been banned in Russia for many years, I wasn’t aware of the involvement of the C.I.A. in its publication and distribution including smuggling copies into Russia as agitprop.

The operation was classified and only came to light after the C.I.A. was badgered into releasing documentation that resulted in the 2014 ‘The Zhivago Affair’ by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. Prescott wrote in her Author’s Note: “it was seeing the declassified documents—with their blacked-out and redacted names and details—that first inspired me to want to fill in the blanks with fiction.”

Prescott also used the novel to address the little known history of the United States’ Cold War persecution of LGBTQ people. 

I found this a highly engaging novel and felt that Prescott did an excellent job of combining fact and fiction to highlight this fascinating chapter of Cold War history. 

A very impressive debut novel.
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Don't worry if you haven't read Doctor Zhivago, but I bet you will when you read this.

This is the story of Pasternak finishing the novel, it being banned in the Soviet Union and the CIA trying to destabilise the communist regime by distributing the book, but....

It's really character studies of three women who are critical to the books completion and 're-distribution' - all great character studies that jump off the page.

You will be willing them to be happy / succeed as the book progresses.

Overall, it gives a deeper, more personal insight into the 1950's Cold War both in the US and in Russia.

Highly recommended!
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A very interesting story about the background behind the book 'Doctor Zhivago'. Also an interesting story about the typists working at Langley in the Cold War. Another interesting story about the women who listened to secrets for a living. However none of the stories really had much to do with the other, which was a real shame. I kept waiting for the connection, but there wasn't one.
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I resisted this because I don't know anything about Doctor Zhivago, and also in part because of all the hype this book was getting - but it was not what I expected at all. I found this story fascinating, the dichotomy between east and west, and the way truths can be misrepresented and mean different things to different people. The structure didn't work for me as an ebook but it was excellent in hard copy to follow all the different characters and their significance to the overarching story. A captivating book, stark in its realities but with underlying heart.
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An interesting enough book to read although not sure if the book is based on truth or if it is was a book of fiction.  I enjoyed the way it jumped back and forth between the main characters as normally I am not a fan of that style but in this case it made sense.
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"I absolutely loved this book. 
Given that I know the story of Doctor Zhivago and am familiar with the story of Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivlinskaya, it was interesting to see what Western author would make out of their story. I am left reeling by it. Author has done a great job painting the image of a talented writer but self-centered, narcissistic and weak man living his earth-bound life between two women, making both of them miserable. 
However, I was more interested in the 'American' part of the story. I loved the girls from the typing pool and Sally and Irina. Creating Russian-American girl with so many talents and so many peculiarities was a job and a half, and author managed it perfectly. Story of Sally and Irina is a sad one and it adds another layer to the veil of 'secrets we kept'
Secrets born out of secrets and carried on the backs of other secrets. And it is all done in pencil skirts, colourful capes and silk stockings. 
Life of an agent is hard and lonely. But what about a double agent's life? What about lonelines and hardness expounded by your origins or your inclinations or your life choices?
Amazing book. A very worthy read for all interested in Cold War era.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy through the lenses of typing pool girls. "
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A fascinating story from the 1950s based on the true story of Boris Pasternak’s struggle to get 'Dr Zhivago' published in the USSR. A great blend of fact and fiction combined with a forbidden love story make for a great fantastic read.
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An absorbing and ambitious novel which any lover of Doctor Zhivago should enjoy. The relationship between its  author and his younger lover; Pasternak’s fall from grace as a favoured Russian author; the struggle to get his book  published in the West and the US plan to use Pasternak’s book as a tool to destabilise communism - all of this is explored in The Secrets We Kept. It also shines a light on the experience of women in the US security services in the 50s, showing how even seasoned 2nd world war operatives were expected to become secretaries and let the men shine. Fascinating and engrossing.
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An excellent story that keeps you interested as you dip between characters as they take on different roles. Definitely recommended to those who enjoy this type of book.
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Writing a book about a famous novel.

This is a compelling story from the 1950s, based on the true account of Boris Pasternak’s struggle when writing his famous book “Dr Zhivago” and his ordeal in getting it published in the repressive USSR. In the end, the book is smuggled out, first to Italy and then to the States. The story of how this is done is the essence of this novel, which although fiction has real facts at the heart of it.

The action takes place in both the West and the East, where the struggle to get Pasternak’s book published forms the basis of the book. It turns out; both sides are struggling to keep their secrets safe.

In the West, the setting is in Washington, in the female typing pool of the CIA. The two most favoured of the women, Sally and Irina, turn out to be not only typists but also spies, tasked with the job of getting “Dr Zhivago” out of Soviet Russia where it has been banned. This isn’t the only secret these two women have to keep. They are also in love, a dangerous relationship that is forbidden at this time and has to remain hidden.  When it is finally discovered it has a drastic effect on both their lives.

In the East, the story turns on the struggle of Pasternak to finish his story, He is not only denounced by the regime, but he sees his mistress dragged off to the camps in punishment. Her terrible ordeal lasts for three years, and even after her return they both feel the full effect of the regime and live with suppression and fear. His book is refused publication in his homeland, but once it has been smuggled out to the West to great acclaim, Pasternak, to ensure their survival, is forced to turn down his award of the Nobel Prize for literature. He lives under the strain of rejection and reprisal. In the end, this destroys his health.

The story is a good one, and the parallels of love and war are cleverly shown. A great deal of research has been done. However, the start is plodding and hard to follow. The central part of the story takes too long to get going. Many will be put off by this, but once it does begin on the Pasternak story, it becomes hard to put down.

It also makes us realise how lucky we are to have the freedom in which to write.


Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of this book to review
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Rating: 3.5/5
Wasn’t quite what I expected. I spent the first half of the book pretty lost and unsure who was who or what was really going on. I even took 3.5 hours out to watch Doctor Zhivago to see if it would help - it didn’t!
After the half way mark, I really started to enjoy the book and struggled to put it down. I loved the typists chapters and was surprised by where the storyline went (no spoilers!). As I got closer to the end, the actual ‘twist’ wasn’t entirely unexpected, and I had a feeling that was coming. Overall, I did enjoy the book but felt the first half could have been a bit different to make it easier to understand/tie together. I wanted this book to wow me and it didn’t quite get there.
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In the nineteen fifties and sixties, when the Cold War was at its height, the U.S. government set out to distribute literature banned by the Communist Government, inside the USSR. One such book was Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.
This novel is about that book, it’s author, his mistress, and the CIA team who took the banned book back to the land of its birth - at the time, this was an important act of anti-Soviet propaganda, a rebuke to Soviet oppression, meant to embarrass the Communist Party and Soviet leaders. This is the history, the facts at the heart of The Secrets We Kept, but the story is told by a cast of historical and fictional characters. In America, the narrators are Irina Drozdova, a Russian-American typist at the CIA, promoted to drops and field work. Sally Forrester, a beautiful, experienced agent assigned to coach Irina in spycraft. Teddy Helms, a boorish CIA man who becomes romantically involved with Irina, and the Typing Pool, who speak as one, as ‘we’. In the East, there is only one voice, Olga Vsevolodovna, Pasternak’s mistress, and inspiration for the beautiful Lara of his novel. I sometimes had trouble with the multiple voices. There are many different characters and it did get confusing. It wasn’t always immediately apparent which character was speaking (but this may have been compounded by the formatting problems of the review copy I was sent).
On both sides of the divide, it is the women who always come off worst. In the East, Olga is a pawn, sent to a brutal Siberian labour camp for three years to pressure and punish her lover Pasternak. In the west, the women have more apparent freedom, but their lives are strictly limited, they must never progress or proceed to the same extent as men. All the females at the CIA are exploited to some degree by their male controllers; they have little control over their own lives. In Russia, the once popular and lauded Pasternak struggles against daily oppression for having written a critical book, but it is Olga who is sent to the Gulag on trumped up charges, sentenced to suffer to put pressure on Boris. In the free west, the women do not suffer imprisonment and deprivation, but their lives are constrained in more subtle ways. The women are all well-educated and experienced; many had done serious and covert work in the war, but find themselves consigned to menial tasks in peacetime, in jobs ‘suitable for women’; something to do till they found a husband. As the typing pool says,
“We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly plans. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was ‘Can you type?’”
Like Zhivago, this novel is about love as much as it is about politics. There are two love stories, that of Pasternak and his mistress Olga, and Irina and Sally, who meet at work and fall in love and begin a clandestine affair. Needless to say (and I don’t think this amounts to a spoiler), things do not go well once the sexuality of one of them is discovered.
The story is about spies, but it is not a spy novel. If you’re looking for a suspenseful read, or a classic page turner, this is not it. This is more Mad Men than Harry Palmer. The Secrets We Kept is slow. It is a book that looks deeply into its characters, their lives and their loves. It is not a thriller.
I have found this a hard review to write because, though I did enjoy the book, it was very absorbing, I find, having reached the end, that I have very little to say about it. It has left no deep impressions on me. Fictionalising real events is a good way to tell a history. Like Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, it works wonderfully when done well. Here, it is done competently. I liked it, but it didn’t shake my world or leave me wanting more. It engaged me, but didn’t enthral. It is a good book, but not a great one.
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This fascinating book revolves around smuggling the manuscript of Boris Pasternak's  Dr Zhivago out of Russia, its  subsequent publication  in Italy and its translation into English.  Sounds boring?  Not a bit of it.  You have the Russians not wanting it published at all because of what it told of life in Russia,  Then there are the Americans,desperate to get a copy so that it can feed illicit copies back into Russia to destabilise the population  as they learn what their Government actually is doing..  (All good Cold War stuff.)  And then in Italy, Feltrinelli, a wealth man, simply wants to publish it because he feels strongly that good literature, from wherever, should always be published.  So strong is this belief, the fact that he was himself a fierce advocate  of left wing views and support for Communism did not deter him in his mission even if it incurred the wrath of the Russian Government.
Cleverly, Prescott recounts the story through the eyes of people involved in some way.  So you have, for example, Chapters where we see the lives of Typists in the CIA, then there is what the Carrier was up to or the Agent or the Emissary and then Pasternak, his wife and his muse.  All have "Secrets we kept".
The result is both well researched and well written.  You quickly forget  that parts of it are simply fiction. 
Highly recommended
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I can honestly say this is the best book I’ve read this year. This is a literary thriller in the form of fiction non-fiction. That is, it is a story about true, factually documented events, but with a fictional interpretation as to some details in order to round it out.

The book begins at the dawn of the 1950s and takes it in turns, a few chapters at a time, to tell the story from two perspectives: East and West. In the West we have Irina, born in the US to a mother who escaped from Russia. Her Father didn’t make it, which gives Irina a motivation the CIA recognises in her, long before she does: a hatred for the Soviet regime which outweighs patriotism for the USA. Irina is offered a job in a government typing pool, she knows she’s not the fastest typist, but her employers recognise the potential power of some innate qualities she possesses. Over in the East we follow Olga, the muse of Boris Pasternak Russia’s premier writer. Boris spends some time in his Dacha writing and being looked after by his wife. The rest of his time he spends in Moscow with Olga, they often attend gatherings where he reads sections from the magnum opus he is writing entitled Dr Zhivago. The government learns that in depicting the limitations placed upon the characters in his love story, Boris’s writing is subversive. They arrest his muse; when she then fails to reveal details of the book she is sent to a gulag. The story follows the characters over the next decade.

This book is very well written; a good pace woven with the right level of detail make for an immersive reading experience. Switching between the spies of the West and the lovers of the East, the plot is in turn thrilling and emotional; I am in awe that this is Lara Prescott’s debut work. This is a great literary thriller, but it is also so much more: an historical snapshot of a world divided by political ideology, an acknowledgement of the influence of art for propaganda, a recognition of the (often unseen) power of women and a tribute to the value of freedom of expression.
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