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Summary and book reviews of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept

A novel

by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott X
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 368 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

A thrilling tale of secretaries turned spies, of love and duty, and of sacrifice--inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago.

A Hello Sunshine x Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick

At the height of the Cold War, two secretaries are pulled out of the typing pool at the CIA and given the assignment of a lifetime. Their mission: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago out of the USSR, where no one dare publish it, and help Pasternak's magnum opus make its way into print around the world. Glamorous and sophisticated Sally Forrester is a seasoned spy who has honed her gift for deceit all over the world--using her magnetism and charm to pry secrets out of powerful men. Irina is a complete novice, and under Sally's tutelage quickly learns how to blend in, make drops, and invisibly ferry classified documents.

The Secrets We Kept combines a legendary literary love story--the decades-long affair between Pasternak and his mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya, who was sent to the Gulag and inspired Zhivago's heroine, Lara--with a narrative about two women empowered to lead lives of extraordinary intrigue and risk.

From Pasternak's country estate outside Moscow to the brutalities of the Gulag, from Washington, D.C. to Paris and Milan, The Secrets We Kept captures a watershed moment in the history of literature--told with soaring emotional intensity and captivating historical detail. And at the center of this unforgettable debut is the powerful belief that a piece of art can change the world.

Prologue

The Typists

We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable. Our identical desks were each equipped with a mint-shelled Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter, a black Western Electric rotary phone, and a stack of yellow steno pads. Our fingers flew across the keys. Our clacking was constant. We'd pause only to answer the phone or to take a drag of a cigarette; some of us managed to master both without missing a beat.

The men would arrive around ten. One by one, they'd pull us into their offices. We'd sit in small chairs pushed into the corners while they'd sit behind their large mahogany desks or pace the carpet while speaking to the ceiling. We'd listen. We'd record. We were their audience of one for their memos, reports, write-ups, lunch orders. Sometimes they'd forget we were there and we'd learn much more: who was trying to box out whom, who was making a power play, who was having an affair, who was in and who was out.

Sometimes they'd refer to us not...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group's conversation of Lara Prescott's The Secrets We Kept, an intensely dramatic, eye-opening fictionalized account of the inner workings of the CIA during the height of the Cold War, told through the eyes of the women who made the Agency run as typists and spies, and specifically as the revolutionary novel Doctor Zhivago threatened to upend the Soviet regime—and the hearts of those involved in its creation and dissemination.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
  1. Compare the way the men and women in the book go about their work of secret-keeping. How do societal gender roles determine who does what and who is acknowledged for their work ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

It was absolutely a stunning page-turner of historical fiction, meticulously researched, with characters so masterfully fleshed out that you forget the "fiction" aspect entirely. When I closed the final pages, I was not ready to leave Olga, Sally, Irina and the typists behind, despite the satisfying endings (Tiffany V). Lara Prescott does a wonderful job making these three women come alive (Jeanne W)...continued

Full Review Members Only (632 words).

(Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Such is the thoroughness of Prescott’s research and the crispness of her delivery that the novel reads almost like a documentary...Sally, Irina and Olga are distinct, dimensional and complex voices; their arcs compelling and sometimes surprising...It is satisfying to witness these women’s evolutions, their stamina, wit and canny determination: enmeshed in multitiered battles for the survival of those principles for which so very, very many sacrificed themselves. Without a speck of sentiment, Prescott has built an impassioned testament to them.

The New York Times
A gorgeous and romantic feast of a novel anchored by a cast of indelible secretaries.

Vogue
Enthralling… This is the rare page-turner with prose that’s as wily as its plot.

Entertainment Weekly
Proto-feminist Mad Men transposed to the world of international espionage—all midcentury style and intrigue set against real, indelible history.

BookPage (starred review)
A whirlwind of storytelling. In Prescott’s supremely talented hands, the result is no less than endlessly fascinating, often deliciously fun as well as heartbreaking. The Secrets We Kept is a dazzling, beguiling debut.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Despite the passionate avowals and heroics, the love affair of Olga and Boris never quite catches fire. But the Western portions of the book—the D.C. gossip, the details of spy training, and the lesbian affair—really sing.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This debut shines as spy story, publication thriller, and historical romance with a twist.

Library Journal (starred review)
For a debut novelist, Prescott writes with astonishing assurance, enthralling readers with tales of secret agents and intrigue, love, and betrayal. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Epic in scope, deliciously meaty, and utterly convincing.

Author Blurb Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck & Other Stories
Stylish, thrilling, smart, vivid.

Author Blurb H.W. Brands, author of The First American
Provocative, haunting and a damn good read.

Author Blurb Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This
A first-rate novel, and it signals the arrival of a major new writer.

Author Blurb Deb Olin Unferth, author of Minor Robberies
One of the most unique and devastating novels [I have] read in years.

Author Blurb Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Huntress and The Alice Network
The Secrets We Kept is simply sensational. Two gripping narratives unfold in the pressure cooker of the Cold War: passionate, courageous Olga who stands in the shadow of Soviet author Boris Pasternak yet inspires him to write a heroine for the ages, and the cynical, equally-overshadowed women of the CIA who help bring Pasternak's masterpiece Dr. Zhivago to bear as a weapon against Soviet oppression. From the gulags of the USSR to the cherry trees of Washington DC, the story grips and refuses to let go. Lara Prescott is a star in the making.

Reader Reviews

Tiffany V. (Colora, MD)

Never underestimate a woman...
"In a man's world, women are the perfect spies." What an exceptionally fitting tagline for Lara Prescott's enthralling novel set in the Cold War era! Told from multiple points of view, this story takes us from the deceptive calm of typing pool of ...   Read More

Lynn D. (Kingston, NY)

There are a lot of secrets
The Secrets We Kept is a fast paced historical novel about the writing of Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, and the complicated and dangerous struggle to get it published internationally and in the USSR during the Cold War. We meet the women typing ...   Read More

Mark S. (Blauvelt, NY)

Hooked on page 1
While I have enjoyed everything I have read through BookBrowse, this was definitely my favorite. Instead of the gradual/slow beginning that can sometimes plague even a great plot, Prescott jumped right into the story. I enjoyed her style, the way she...   Read More

John Aufderheide

The Secrets We Kept
I had the good fortune of hearing Lara Prescott present an abbreviated synopsis of her wonderful book, The Secrets We Kept, at the University of Texas, Austin. This book of historical fiction is even better than her excellent talk. The book is...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Dr. Zhivago, the Movie

Dr. Zhivago movie poster The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott revolves around the publication of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, which was banned in the Soviet Union because of the author's perceived anti-socialist ideals. The novel was adapted into a film in 1965 by British director David Lean (famous at the time for Lawrence of Arabia), starring Omar Sharif as the title character and Julie Christie as his love interest Lara Antipova. Dr. Yuri Zhivago grows up wishing to be a poet, but becomes a doctor instead. He marries his cousin Tonya, but falls in love with another woman, Lara, who is married to a Bolshevik activist, Pasha Antipov. Drama and tragedy ensues, against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Though it was panned by many critics at the...

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