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The Secrets We Kept: A novel
by Lara Prescott

Published: 2019-09-03
Hardcover : 368 pages
20 members reading this now
44 clubs reading this now
3 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 2 members
A HELLO SUNSHINE x REESE WITHERSPOON BOOK CLUB PICK

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 ...
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Introduction

A HELLO SUNSHINE x REESE WITHERSPOON BOOK CLUB PICK

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.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of September 2019: There are a few love stories in The Secrets We Kept, mostly of the unhappy kind: adulterous, unrequited, forbidden, and ill-fated. And in between these thwarted romances, history happens. In Russia, a mistress suffers years in a Gulag rather than betray her married lover—Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago—to Stalin. Her suffering inspires Pasternak to create Lara, a literary heroine for the ages. A few years later, in mid-1950s Washington DC, two intriguing, courageous women work as spies for the CIA while masquerading as typing pool secretaries. It’s a long way from the Gulag to the Beltway, but Prescott cleverly links these two narratives via the progress of the Doctor Zhivago manuscript, whose besieged creator half-pleads, half-prays, “May it make its way around the world.” That this contraband masterpiece did make its way around the world while Russians were forbidden to read it, and that the CIA hatched an audacious plot to smuggle it into Soviet Russia so as to turn its citizens against communism, is credited to men with famous surnames: Pasternak, Stalin, Dulles, and even publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. But Prescott’s mesmerizing novel brings women out of the shadows and gives them their due, as spies and muses yes, but also as unsung heroines who put their lives on the line to get a novel out into the world, trusting that to do so would rouse a nation and change the course of history. --Vannessa Cronin

Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

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?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Passion and Intrigue "by LER (see profile) 01/23/20

I really enjoyed the parallel stories of significant events happening in the 1940-50's U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and how they eventually intertwined. There are many layers to this book and I think the author... (read more)

 
by BBL713 (see profile) 10/22/19

 
by Phyllisouthfield (see profile) 10/20/19

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