The Secrets We Kept: A novel

The Secrets We Kept: A novel

by Lara Prescott


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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.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525656159
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 119,148
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

LARA PRESCOTT received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin. She was previously an animal protection advocate and a political campaign operative. Her stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, Day One, and Tin House Flash Fridays. She won the 2016 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize for the first chapter of The Secrets We Kept. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt


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 by name but by hair color or body type: Blondie, Red, Tits. We had our secret names for them, too: Grabber, Coffee Breath, Teeth.

They would call us girls, but we were not.

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 planes. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when inter­viewed was “Can you type?”

It’s been said that the typewriter was built for women—that to truly make the keys sing requires the feminine touch, that our narrow fingers are suited for the device, that while men lay claim to cars and bombs and rockets, the typewriter is a machine of our own.

Well, we don’t know about all that. But what we will say is that as we typed, our fingers became extensions of our brains, with no delay between the words coming out of their mouths—words they told us not to remember—and our keys slapping ink onto paper. And when you think about it like that, about the mechanics of it all, it’s almost poetic. Almost.

But did we aspire to tension headaches and sore wrists and bad posture? Is it what we dreamed of in high school, when studying twice as hard as the boys? Was clerical work what we had in mind when opening the fat manila envelopes containing our college accep­tance letters? Or where we thought we’d be headed as we sat in those white wooden chairs on the fifty-yard line, capped and gowned, receiving the rolled parchments that promised we were qualified to do so much more?

Most of us viewed the job in the typing pool as temporary. We wouldn’t admit it aloud—not even to each other—but many of us believed it would be a first rung toward achieving what the men got right out of college: positions as officers; our own offices with lamps that gave off a flattering light, plush rugs, wooden desks; our own typists taking down our dictation. We thought of it as a beginning, not an end, despite what we’d been told all our lives.

Other women came to the Agency not to start their careers but to round them out. Leftovers from the OSS, where they’d been legends during the war, they’d become relics relegated to the typing pool or the records department or some desk in some corner with nothing to do.

There was Betty. During the war, she ran black ops, striking blows at opposition morale by planting newspaper articles and dropping propaganda flyers from airplanes. We’d heard she once provided dynamite to a man who blew up a resource train as it passed over a bridge somewhere in Burma. We could never be sure what was true and what wasn’t; those old OSS records had a way of disappearing. But what we did know was that at the Agency, Betty sat at a desk along with the rest of us, the Ivy League men who were her peers during the war having become her bosses.

We think of Virginia, sitting at a similar desk—her thick yellow cardigan wrapped around her shoulders no matter the season, a pencil stuck in the bun atop her head. We think of her one fuzzy blue slipper underneath her desk—no need for the other, her left leg amputated after a childhood hunting accident. She’d named her prosthetic leg Cuthbert, and if she had too many drinks, she’d take it off and hand it to you. Virginia rarely spoke of her time in the OSS, and if you hadn’t heard the secondhand stories about her spy days you’d think she was just another aging government gal. But we’d heard the stories. Like the time she disguised herself as a milkmaid and led a herd of cows and two French Resistance fighters to the border. How the Gestapo had called her one of the most dangerous of the allied spies—Cuthbert and all. Sometimes Virginia would pass us in the hall, or we’d share an elevator with her, or we’d see her waiting for the number sixteen bus at the corner of E and Twenty-First. We’d want to stop and ask her about her days fighting the Nazis—about whether she still thought of those days while sitting at that desk wait­ing for the next war, or for someone to tell her to go home.

They’d tried to push the OSS gals out for years—they had no use for them in their new cold war. Those same fingers that once pulled triggers had become better suited for the typewriter, it seemed.

But who were we to complain? It was a good job, and we were lucky to have it. And it was certainly more exciting than most govern­ment gigs. Department of Agriculture? Interior? Could you imagine?

The Soviet Russia Division, or SR, became our home away from home. And just as the Agency was known as a boys’ club, we formed our own group. We began thinking of ourselves as the Pool, and we were stronger for it.

Plus, the commute wasn’t bad. We’d take buses or streetcars in bad weather and walk on nice days. Most of us lived in the neighbor­hoods bordering downtown: Georgetown, Dupont, Cleveland Park, Cathedral Heights. We lived alone in walk-up studios so small one could practically lie down and touch one wall with her head and the other with her toes. We lived in the last remaining boarding houses on Mass. Avenue, with lines of bunk beds and ten-thirty curfews. We often had roommates—other government gals with names like Agnes or Peg who were always leaving their pink foam curlers in the sink or peanut butter stuck to the back of the butter knife or used sanitary napkins improperly wrapped in the small wastebasket next to the sink.

Only Linda Murphy was married back then, and only just mar­ried. The marrieds never stayed long. Some stuck it out until they got pregnant, but usually as soon as an engagement ring was slipped on, they’d plan their departure. We’d eat Safeway sheet cake in the break room to see them off. The men would come in for a slice and say they were awfully sad to see them go; but we’d catch that glim­mer in their eye as they thought about whichever newer, younger girl might take their place. We’d promise to keep in touch, but after the wedding and the baby, they’d settle down in the farthest corners of the District—places one would have to take a taxi or two buses to reach, like Bethesda or Fairfax or Alexandria. Maybe we’d make the journey out there for the baby’s first birthday, but anything after that was unlikely.

Most of us were single, putting our career first, a choice we’d re­peatedly have to tell our parents was not a political statement. Sure, they were proud when we graduated from college, but with each pass­ing year spent making careers instead of babies, they grew increas­ingly confused about our state of husbandlessness and our rather odd decision to live in a city built on a swamp.

And sure, in summer, Washington’s humidity was thick as a wet blanket, the mosquitoes tiger-striped and fierce. In the morning, our curls, done up the night before, would deflate as soon as we’d step outside. And the streetcars and buses felt like saunas but smelled like rotten sponges. Apart from a cold shower, there was never a moment when one felt less than sweaty and disheveled.

Winter didn’t offer much reprieve. We’d bundle up and rush from our bus stop with our head down to avoid the winds that blew off the icy Potomac.

But in the fall, the city came alive. The trees along Connecticut Avenue looked like falling orange and red fireworks. And the tem­perature was lovely, no need to worry about our blouses being soaked through at the armpits. The hot dog vendors would serve fire-roasted chestnuts in small paper bags—the perfect amount for an evening walk home.

And each spring brought cherry blossoms and busloads of tour­ists who would walk the monuments and, not heeding the many signs, pluck the pink-and-white flowers and tuck them behind an ear or into a suit pocket.

Fall and spring in the District were times to linger, and in those moments we’d stop and sit on a bench or take a detour around the Reflecting Pool. Sure, inside the Agency’s E Street complex the fluo­rescent lights cast everything in a harsh glow, exaggerating the shine on our forehead and the pores on our nose. But when we’d leave for the day and the cool air would hit our bare arms, when we’d choose to take the long walk home through the Mall, it was in those moments that the city on a swamp became a postcard.

But we also remember the sore fingers and the aching wrists and the endless memos and reports and dictations. We typed so much, some of us even dreamed of typing. Even years later, men we shared our beds with would remark that our fingers would sometimes twitch in our sleep. We remember looking at the clock every five minutes on Friday afternoons. We remember the paper cuts, the scratchy toilet paper, the way the lobby’s hardwood floors smelled of Murphy Oil Soap on Monday mornings and how our heels would skid across them for days after they were waxed.

We remember the one strip of windows lining the far end of SR—how they were too high to see out of, how all we could see anyway was the gray State Department building across the street, which looked exactly like our gray building. We’d speculate about their typing pool. What did they look like? What were their lives like? Did they ever look out their windows at our gray building and wonder about us?

At the time, those days felt so long and specific; but thinking back, they all blend. We can’t tell you whether the Christmas party when Walter Anderson spilled red wine all over the front of his shirt and passed out at reception with a note pinned to his lapel that read do not resuscitate happened in ’51 or ’55. Nor do we remember if Holly Falcon was fired because she let a visiting officer take nude photos of her in the second-floor conference room, or if she was promoted because of those very photos and fired shortly after for some other reason.

But there are other things we do remember.

If you were to come to Headquarters and see a woman in a smart green tweed suit following a man into his office or a woman wearing red heels and a matching angora sweater at reception, you might’ve assumed these women were typists or secretaries; and you would’ve been right. But you would have also been wrong. Secretary: a per­son entrusted with a secret. From the Latin secretus, secretum. We all typed, but some of us did more. We spoke no word of the work we did after we covered our typewriters each day. Unlike some of the men, we could keep our secrets.

Reading Group Guide

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.

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 in public? In your opinion, do the men or women wield more power?

2. For the main women in the book—Olga, Irina, and Sally—secret-keeping incurs different punishments and rewards. Who do you think suffers and sacrifices the most? Who winds up most “successful”?

3. Throughout the book, we read of Olga’s unsent letters to one of her interrogators in the Gulag, the prison where she’s sent for her association with Boris Pasternak. Were you surprised by her loyalty to him in spite of the immense suffering she endures? How, in her own way, does she use those letters to express the kind of truth about love and oppression that Boris does in his novel?

4. Sally describes herself as having “one of those faces—the wide eyes, the ready smile that suggested I was an open book, someone who had no secrets to keep, and if she did, wouldn’t be able to keep them anyway” (63). How do she and the other women in the book transform themselves in order to keep so many secrets? How are these guises reflected in the structure of the novel itself? Consider the changing first-person points of view and the names of the chapters.

5. Major historical events, including Stalin’s death and the launch of Sputnik, are recalled through the eyes of the characters in highly charged environments. If you lived through these events yourself, how did their depiction in the novel impact your understanding of them? If you didn’t, how did their depiction shed light on what it was like to experience them first-hand?

6. Have you read Doctor Zhivago? If so, what elements of that love story do you see recurring in The Secrets We Kept? And even if you haven’t read it, were you able to glean how the balance of political commentary and romance contributed to the stir it caused in the world at the time of its publication?

7. Did you agree with Boris’s decisions first to share the novel with the Italian publisher, and then decline the Nobel Prize? Why or why not?

8. Although Irina believed she failed her interview for the typist job, she explains that “they [had] seen something in me that I hadn’t seen myself . . . For the first time in my life, I felt as if I had a greater purpose, not just a job. That night, something unlocked in me—a hidden power I never knew I had” (116). Do you believe she uses this power for good? Do you think she came away from her position grateful for the power she discovered?

9. The chapters narrated by the typists form a kind of Greek chorus anchoring the book in their shared experience—a collective point of view that’s both inside and outside the deepest truths of the CIA. Of the course of the novel, how do the limits of their knowledge manifest themselves? What might this suggest about the nature of truth itself, and how complete it can really be? What is the hierarchy of secrecy inside and outside the Agency?

10. Sally states that becoming someone else for her work, that taking on a given persona is “the best part . . . [But] to become someone else, you have to want to lose yourself in the first place” (186). How does she embody this desire to erase a former identity, and who else in the book shares this feeling?

11. Describe Teddy’s attraction to Irina and to his job at the Agency. Did you get the impression that he really knew what he wanted out of his life? How are his passions for literature (and Russian literature in particular) satisfied or disappointed by what unfolds during the course of the novel?

12. Discuss how taboo influences the main love affairs in the book. Does any character find true satisfaction or happiness in traditional romantic arrangements (namely, heterosexual marriage), and how do these relationships contribute to the theme of secrecy in the novel?

13. Olga’s children, Ira and Mitya, are both victims of their mother’s choices in love and politics. How does she navigate her identity as a woman and a mother, and the obligations and desires that come with it? Would you have made the same choices she did when it came to staying with Boris? Consider her recognition that “I thought of my children knowing, so young, that love sometimes isn’t enough” (243).

14. Discuss the author’s choices to use first-person, second-person, and third-person narrators for different chapters in the book. What do those choices suggest about the relative importance of the characters, and how close she wants us to get to them?

15. “We go on because that’s what we have to do,” Olga tells Boris when he is contemplating suicide (294). How do the events of the novel speak to this kind of endurance? Who takes up the charge to go on, and who isn’t able to?

16. Describe your experience of reading about the dissemination of Doctor Zhivago at the World’s Fair. What emotions and physical feelings came up as this dangerous property was passed from hand to hand? If you were living in the time of the novel, do you think you would have sought it out knowing the implications of reading it?

17. Discuss a book, film, piece of music, or other art that has profoundly shaped your experience of current events at any point in your life in the way Doctor Zhivago does for the characters. How did that piece reflect back to you concerns about how you lived your life at the time? Did it change your behaviors or lifestyle at all?

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