Though she was profiled in this week’s Sunday New York Times Book Review, I had no idea that Reese Witherspoon hosted her own book club. Worse: I didn’t even notice the “Reese’s Book Club” icon on the front cover of Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, and once I did, wasn’t even sure what it was. Guess I have to bone up what’s going on in the media and entertainment world. But why, when I can be immersed in incredible novels like Prescott’s debut instead?
Spanning a period from 1949 to 1961, The Secrets We Kept by the aptly named Lara Prescott provides an intriguing look at post-WWII era young women armed with formidable educations and noteworthy skills, but shunted off to steno pools and typist jobs, their comparably equipped male counterparts now their supervisors, ripe with all of that period’s dismissiveness and even blatant abuse. For these portions of Prescott’s complex multi-POV novel, you may be reminded of Renee Rosen’s Park Avenue Summer and White Collar Girls, or Fiona Davis’ The Dollhouse and The Chelsea Girls. But then mix it up with Ian Fleming. No, check that. More like Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series, or Jane Thynne’s Clara Vine novels. The Secrets We Kept isn’t about underwater spear gun battles, no one brandishes a Walther PPK, and it’s no simple espionage thriller.
It’s really about three women: Irina, a typist, Sally, a receptionist, both at the Cold War era CIA. And then there’s Olga, the mistress of famed Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. But the receptionist is really a glamorous international spy. The typist is recruited to become one, while Pasternak’s ever loyal lover endures torture in Lubyanka prison and then the Gulags to protect the writer. The unfolding story is actually about the smuggling of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago manuscript out of Soviet era Russia, its publication in Europe, and once finally translated into English, smuggling copies back into Russia so his countrymen could actually read the Nobel Prize winning but banned novel. And like Zhivago and Lara in Pasternak’s epic novel, love can sometimes feel utterly doomed in Prescott’s book, with Olga suffering unimaginable horrors while forced to share her beloved with the novelist’s pragmatic but shrewish wife, while Irina and Sally fall in love, but in a time and place that simply won’t tolerate their relationship.
Sharing a first name with Pasternak’s iconic Lara, Prescott may have been destined to write this novel. It’s a thick, rich 350-page book, but I devoured it in two days, unable to put it down and admittedly enthralled from the first page. At first it took a little getting used to the author’s shifting points of view from one chapter to another, but it was well worth the effort. It’s quite a debut, and it looks like Prescott’s book is already on the bestseller lists, so let’s just guess that we can anticipate a movie version in a year or two. I just hope Hollywood doesn’t find some way to muck up this intimate and intriguing tale of three women by stuffing it full of out-of-place action. Explosions and super-villains won’t be needed. “Lara’s Theme” from David Lean’s 1965 movie version of Doctor Zhivago wouldn’t hurt, though.
Author photo: Trevor Palhaus