- - Wednesday, September 25, 2019


Good news and better news. Good news? “The Secrets We Kept” is one of fall’s big books; and the better news is that it deserves to be. 

Bought — at auction — by the highly-respected Knopf for a reported $2 million, the book’s author, also reportedly, turned down a higher offer from a house she liked less. Now that’s class. Most novelists would like to do that; few actually would.

But Lara Prescott, whose MFA is from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, and who has previously written about animal protection and politics (aren’t they the same?) is made of sterner stuff. Two weeks before her agent set up the auction, she was told by what The New York Times referred to as “a famous older male writer, “‘You’re not going to get anything for this. You need to edit it like Hemingway. We can talk about it over beers.’”

Well, beers or no beers, in mid-September, the novel ranked No. 3 on The Times’ bestseller list for fiction. How do you like them apples, Mr. Famous Male Writer?

The “secrets” of the book’s title are the classified information that passed through the eyes to the fingers of the women in the typing pool of the CIA’s post-Office of Strategic Services (OSS).    

“We typed a hundred words a 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 … 

“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 … Sometimes they’d forget we were there and we’d learn much more …

“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 flew planes. Some could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But we were all asked when interviewed, ‘Can you type?’”

Those lines from the prologue give you the book’s general story, but it’s intertwined with an actual, “true fact,” event from CIA files, the agency’s successful attempt to make Russian language editions of Boris Pasternak’s magisterial pro-Western novel “Doctor Zhivago” available in the Motherland where it had been banned — and Lara, the author’s mistress, sent to the gulag for, in effect, having been his muse.

(No surprise that Ms. Prescott’s first name is Lara; her mother loved the novel.)

As “The Secrets We Kept” progresses, we enter the CIA’s post-WWII world at a time when its offices were still in the old State Department building at 21st and C Streets Northwest and “tempos” on the mall (before moving to Langley, Virginia in 1961). The Washington verisimilitude is well done: The old Georgetown Theater on Wisconsin Avenue and the original Old Ebbitt on F, not 15th, Street. Suprise, no mention of a trolley ride out to Great Falls and the famous old amusement park. 

Not all the typists came from Ivy League schools. One who didn’t was Irina, probably hired because her mother was born in Russia. Irina’s eventual transformation from typist into U.S. spy is monitored by the lovely and mysterious Sally Forrester, who comes to love her plain-Jane charge, literally. But that’s not central to the story. 

Ms. Prescott’s fictionalized telling of the story sticks closely to the facts of what the CIA did to get “Dr. Zhivago” published in Russian in Russia. (See “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, The CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book” by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.) As for Irina and Sally, chalk that up to the author’s imagination — I think.

The characterization and setting are, as said, first rate, but so also are the plotting and its development:

“The Agency moved fast … In the time it took winter to thaw, the cherry blossoms to bloom and droop, the dome of Washington’s humidity to descend, ‘Doctor Zhivago’s Russian proofs were prepped in New York, printed in The Netherlands, and shuttled to a safe house in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon. Three hundred sixty-five copies of the novel had been printed and bound in blue linen covers — just in time for the World’s Fair, where we’d distribute the banned book to visiting Soviets.”      

“The Secrets We Kept” is a fine book, well deserving of its out-of-the-box success for all the reasons stated and implied above, but mainly for the undeniable fact that it is a very good story very well told.

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •


By Lara Prescott

Knopf, $26.95, 349 pages

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