The Secrets We Kept highlights the role of women in espionage.

In recent years, writers have been churning out a growing number of books about the long-neglected role of women in espionage. For instance, former MI5 Director General Stella Rimington highlights the work of English counterespionage in the Liz Carlyle series, ten books strong to date. And a number of excellent recent nonfiction books (listed below) celebrate the diverse contributions of women to the spy game. Now, in a novel that appears on a great many lists of the most anticipated fiction of 2019, comes Lara Prescott’s novel, The Secrets We Kept. It’s a gripping account of women’s role in one of the CIA’s highest-profile Cold War operations, and it’s grounded in fact.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The novel’s action largely plays out between the first Soviet H-bomb test (1953) and the launch of Sputnik (1957) that is credited with sparking the space race. The story revolves around some of the many women who worked for America’s fledgling spy agency, the CIA. Prescott tells the tale through the perspective of several narrators, most notably Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, who was the mistress of the Nobel Prize-winning author Boris Pasternak and the inspiration for the character of Lara in his influential novel Doctor Zhivago.

Two other (fictional) women play equally important roles in telling the story: Irina Drozdova, a Russian immigrant recruited from the CIA typing pool to play an operational role, and Sally Forrester, an OSS veteran who trains Irina.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (2019) 325 pages ★★★★★

Highlighting the (usually limited) role of women in espionage

Prescott highlights the now well-documented discrimination that permeated the CIA (and other US government departments) following World War II. “In the OSS days,” Sally Forrester reflects, “women had been entrusted with blowing up bridges, but just a few years later, the Agency was still testing the waters to see what we were capable of.” And what the Agency found nearly all women could do was limited to typing and delivering coffee. So, why did women allow themselves to be treated this way? Apart from the fact that many simply needed the job, there was an additional inducement for the few who did manage to gain entry to assignments in the field. It was “the power that came from being a keeper of secrets. It was a power that some . . . found more intoxicating than any drug, sex, or other means of quickening one’s heartbeat.” Hence, the title of this well-wrought novel.

In The Secrets We Kept, we follow Ivinskaya and Pasternak through the troubled years when he struggled to complete what he (and later critics) considered his master work, Doctor Zhivago. Simultaneously, we observe the women of the typing pool in the CIA’s Soviet Russia division as Drozdova and Forrester disappear from time to time on operational assignments.

A novel grounded in historical fact

Prescott has done her research, and well. The picture she paints of the CIA in the 1950s is entirely consistent with the historical works that cover the agency in the same period. Several real-life personalities figure in the story, including Frank Wisner and Allen Dulles as well as Ivinskaya and Pasternak.

During the depth of the Cold War, as the Red Scare gripped Washington, the CIA searched desperately for ways to weaken the country’s leading adversary, the Soviet Union. Then Wisner’s division developed a clever plan: to secure a copy of the suppressed Doctor Zhivago manuscript, reproduce it in the original Russian, and smuggle hundreds of copies into the USSR to undermine the Russian people’s faith in their government. And, yes, it actually happened.

I’ve also reviewed an excellent nonfiction book about The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée—How a novel helped speed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some of the excellent nonfiction books about the role of women in espionage that I’ve reviewed on this site include:

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