The Secrets We Kept: Secrets, lies and spies

What is this about?: For me at least, a thriller about spies and bringing Dr Zhivago to Russians became something else entirely as I started reading: powerful, compelling characterisation brought three women to life in the story of how the Americans wanted to use Dr Zhivago to reach those Russians willing to listen or read to the story: Irina, Sally and Olga.

What else is this about?: These fierce, determined women in so very different lives, surrounded by very different men and all of whom are so much more than anyone realises.


1956. A celebrated Russian author is writing a book, Doctor Zhivago, which could spark dissent in the Soviet Union. The Soviets, afraid of its subversive power, ban it.

But in the rest of the world it’s fast becoming a sensation.

In Washington DC, the CIA is planning to use the book to tip the Cold War in its favour.

Their agents are not the usual spies, however. Two typists – the charming, experienced Sally and the talented novice Irina – are charged with the mission of a lifetime: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago back into Russia by any means necessary.

It will not be easy. There are people prepared to die for this book – and agents willing to kill for it. But they cannot fail – as this book has the power to change history.

If you go through my blog and my book reviews, you’ll see that historical fiction is a rarity for me. Even more rare, is how much I enjoyed The Secrets We Kept.

Olga and Dr Zhivago

What do you know about the book Dr Zhivago? Me, I know very little other than the movie was based on a book, and even then it took me years to realise that. And then there’s everything I got from this entry, so I can’t say that my understanding of the text of Dr Zhivago and the history behind it was very coherent.

The Secrets We Kept takes some of that history and weaves a story around three women: Sally, Irina and Olga. To be exact, this book is about these women and their love stories, and it spans a decade or so in their lives.

Olga Ivinskaya is Boris Pasternak’s mistress and the woman upon whom Lara, Zhivago’s female main character, is based.

Boris and Olga are in love, an all consuming affair that sees her eventually sent to Russian labour camps for what he is writing — Zhivago. The Russians feared it and wanted it suppressed because it valued individuals above all else and not the state.

Prescott takes readers to prison with Olga, to the coldness there, to the women who bully her, and her interrogations — and her letters to her interrogator. There is never any doubt that she loves Boris, but she is changed by her time in prison. However, that doesn’t stop her from helping Boris find a publisher for Zhivago — and the book lets us in to the power of that work, and the lengths they had to go to get it published. 

Boris Pasternak is consumed by his writing, as much as he is by Olga despite his every intention to break up with her — he simply cannot let her go. She is a big part of his life’s work, and of getting it out into the world. 

Tragedy hangs over every part of their relationship in these pages — as much as you realise how much they love each other, you also realise their story will never have a happy ending. Prescott’s writing is restrained, amplifying the tragedy of their relationship and the deep love between them at the same time. 

That same restraint is what makes Sally and Irina’s story as fascinating.

Sally and Irina

Readers are introduced to the world of CIA, to how women are treated, and to how much better they are than what society thinks they should be — before they meet Irina and Sally.

Irina is a Russian-born woman, who lives with her mother and works for the CIA as a typist. She is glad to be brought into the fold of the women in the typists’ pool, but she still stands apart from them. It’s why she starts training with Teddy, an agent within the CIA, learning the ropes of what it means to be a carrier of messages in this world of spies.

Irina is lost, drifting into things she doesn’t want with Teddy because that’s what’s expected of her. It is when Sally appears that she begins to understand what she can have.

Prescott lets each woman narrate parts, giving us insight into their similarities and their differences, and how with each other they can be their true selves.

Sally is adrift herself. She is more skilled than most of the men that make up the CIA’s boy club — which pretty much ejected her after the war was over and they found no use for someone like her. Or so they thought: because they bring Sally back, to train Irina and to go back on missions. 

For Sally and Irina, I kind of forgot about the plot to release Dr Zhivago to Russian society in a way — and that’s a testament to Prescott’s writing, to her superb characterisation and how she evoked the sense of time, place and society for these ladies’ story.

I fell into their story, into their lives, their relationship and their deep-seated desire for more than society thought they should have.

That said, Olga’s story and theirs come together in the release of Zhivago into Russian society — which actually happened.

The Secrets We Kept was nothing like I expected: it drew me in to these womens’ lives, into their evolution by the circumstances around getting Dr Zhivago out to the world and to Russian society. They like, the book, were so much more than I expected. 


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