Book Review: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Who runs the world? Secretaries, spies, and survivors in Lara Prescott's debut novel
Reviewed by Rosalind Faires, Fri., Sept. 13, 2019
You'd think the most alluring element in the title of the debut novel by Michener Center for Writers graduate Lara Prescott would be the "secrets." There are, to be sure, plenty of fascinating ones to uncover in The Secrets We Kept – secrets of infidelity, espionage, dissent, identity, and trauma – but it's the titular "we" that ends up having more weight. The sisterhood that Prescott initiates the reader into in this Cold War story, at once workaday and mythic, is one you're loath to leave even when the story has come to its close.
The Greek chorus that opens the novel is made up of the perpetually overlooked and underappreciated: the secretaries in the CIA's typing pool. Their memories invite us into Washington, D.C., at the outset of the 1950s, where myriad plans to undermine the Soviet Union are being hatched – the newest one being to use the novel Doctor Zhivago as anti-communist propaganda. While most of the secretaries end their workday at five o'clock, two have extracurricular duties. The daughter of Russian immigrants and the newest addition to the typing pool, Irina has an ability to be inobtrusive that makes her a candidate for being a carrier – the kind of spy who makes document pickups and drop-offs that leave no one the wiser. Sally, who becomes Irina's trainer (and has big Joan-from-Mad Men energy, by the way), is a spy of a more seductive breed, but she recognizes in Irina a similar sense of humor, hunger for the work, and queer desire. And all the while, across the Atlantic, the love story behind the love story the CIA hopes to disseminate is entering middle age. Olga, the longtime mistress of Zhivago author Boris Pasternak, survives state violence and makes a life on the fringes of her lover's life, all the while working to protect her family and bring his book to publication.
There's a discretion Prescott maintains throughout The Secrets We Kept, perhaps appropriate given the work and circumstances of her protagonists – she never prescribes an absolute truth when she can give you the big picture and the stories that gently contradict one another and let the reader draw their own conclusion instead. There's readerly pleasure in being trusted to have a keen eye and considerable storytelling strength in the approach as well. Putting Soviet fearmongering and the Lavender Scare – when the U.S. government went to great lengths to root out, fire, and blacklist LGBTQ employees – side-by-side could have felt heavy-handed. By letting us discover the infuriating, cruel hypocrisy of it for ourselves, Prescott makes the comparison feel new and vital.
There's a lot endured by the women of The Secrets We Kept – professional disrespect, governmental menace, sexual assault, all on top of the indignity of their accomplishments being swept under the rug – but astonishingly, this isn't a novel as bleak as a Russian winter. Hope isn't something anyone comes by lightly, Prescott suggests – its maintenance requires imagination, fortitude, and enduring love – but she's assembled a group of heroines with all three in spades.
The Secrets We Keptby Lara Prescott
Knopf, 368 pp., $26.95
Lara Prescott will speak about and sign copies of The Secrets We Kept on Tue., Sept, 17, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.