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Review: The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott
Knopf, 2019. 344 pp. $27

The most destructive war in history is four years past, yet in 1949, the world feels no safer. In Washington, the infant CIA watches every move the Soviets make—or appear to make—certain that the Cold War adversary is doing the same. In Moscow, the KGB arrests Olga Ivinskaya, the muse and mistress of renowned poet Boris Pasternak; she’s carrying his child.

Unattributed press photo of Boris Pasternak, 1959, the year after he won the Nobel Prize (courtesy https://www.ebay.com/itm/1969-Press-Photo-Boris-Pasternak-dfpd41533/303830392954, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Having heard that Pasternak is writing a novel critical of the Soviet past, the secret police demand to know what’s in it. (Why they don’t grill the author instead is never satisfactorily explained.) Olga claims not to know, but of course they don’t believe her and, once she miscarries, ship her to the gulag.

Meanwhile, Irina, a young American woman of Russian parentage, is hired for the CIA typing pool, a coveted job, though she has middling secretarial skills. The other typists, underemployed graduates of Radcliffe, Smith, and Vassar, wonder why. But the bosses have plans for Irina, who’s given lessons on how to make a dead drop and other tricks of tradecraft. Gradually, Irina understands that she’s being groomed for a mission involving Pasternak’s novel, which the CIA would like to see distributed.

Irina’s trainer is Sally Forrester, a holdover from the CIA’s wartime predecessor, the OSS. Sally, though a gifted operative, has been shunted aside—note the recurring feminism—until now, which hurts. Sally never feels as though she’s living fully unless she has an assignment, and she’s been waiting to make her mark in the Company, as insiders call the CIA. Sure enough, she’s sent to Milan to suss out Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher believed to have dealings with Pasternak:

Feltrinelli’s nickname was the Jaguar, and indeed, he moved with the confidence and elegance of a jungle cat. The majority of the party guests were in black tie, but Feltrinelli wore white trousers and a navy blue sweater, the corner of his striped shirt beneath untucked. The trick to pinpointing the man with the biggest bank account in the room is not to look to the man in the nicest tux, but to the man not trying to impress. Feltrinelli pulled out a cigarette, and someone in his orbit reached to light it.

As the passage suggests, Prescott knows how to set a scene, has a keen eye, and an able pen. Yet The Secrets We Kept is the sort of novel whose pages turn readily, but which feels lightweight. Whether or not you’ve heard of Boris Pasternak or the history surrounding the publication of his most famous work, the narrative offers few surprises, and what it builds to peters out rather than reach a crescendo.

Four narrators tell the story: Pasternak’s mistress; Sally; Irina, the neophyte typist/operative; and The Typists, an unnamed, collective voice. Only one of this quartet comes through as a full-fledged character, though details of time, place, and profession at times carry the narrative.

I sympathize with The Typists, whose inside view provides an intriguing perspective on the nation’s spy organization. But they add little to the story, and they’re largely featureless and indistinguishable. And even with a relatively small part to play, they undermine a crucial theme: sexual and intellectual freedom.

The typists are warned not to discuss the documents they type. But these women, who wish they earned respect for their minds, could at least have an opinion about the world around them or a book or an idea. Instead, when they socialize, as they do often, they gossip about who’s wearing what, who’s sleeping with whom, and office politics. No doubt, Prescott intends no disrespect; yet doesn’t this portrayal match how their male bosses likely think of them?

Olga, Pasternak’s mistress, has a harrowing story of arrest and persecution to tell, yet I’m not persuaded that his magnetism has earned her loyalty, come what may. She revels in his celebrity and the influence that lends her, but that can’t be enough. Likewise, with Irina, I don’t know what she wants from life, or why she does what she does.

That leaves Sally, who comes across most vividly. Yet the subplot of her private life, though thematically relevant, has little or no bearing on the story. Prescott, who knows her ground (and even bears the same first name as Pasternak’s heroine), is a capable author, but she’s written her narrative as though she senses that the main plot doesn’t fill the novel and carries less impact than it promises.

As a result, at times, Sally and The Typists feel like add-ons. Partly, this is the limitation of history, because the story can’t invent drama that didn’t happen. Her point seems to be how women take the blame for men’s mistakes, and I agree. Nevertheless, The Secrets We Kept amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Disclaimer: I obtained a reading copy of this book from the public library.