American Spy was the first nominee I reviewed for the Mystery Writers of America Best First Novel by an American Author… and the second nominee has even more spies! The Secrets We Kept is Lara Prescott’s Cold War-era tale of espionage built on the true story of the CIA’s involvement in bringing Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dr. Zhivago, to Russia.
The book features two narratives. One features “the typists,” the CIA’s smart, capable, and underused women who are told to turn off the brains and let the words dictated by the men of the CIA flow through their headsets, into the ears, and down into their fingers and onto the typewriter page. Occasionally, a typist is more than a typist. And Irina, beautiful daughter of a Russian-born seamstress, is plucked from the typing pool for special training. Glamorous and superior, the world-traveling Sally Forrester helps Irina hone her skills, and the women become close. Really close.
The second narrative is the story of Olga Vsevolodovna, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and the inspiration for Lara in Dr. Zhivago. She is his muse. She and her two children can live nearby, accepting his financial support in exchange for giving up any semblance of a normal life. And then one day she is picked up by the authorities, jailed, starved, and tortured because of her connection to Pasternak, whom the authorities suspect of writing a subversive novel. Pregnant, she loses the baby, and comes home years later to pick up where she left off – aged beyond her years, but still beautiful to him.
The plot threads come together as a CIA department that sows dissent among the Russian people through literature plots to secure a copy of Dr. Zhivago in the original Russian in order to distribute it, clandestinely, in Russia. This is done. Pasternak wins, then refuses, the Nobel Prize. He dies. Olga is arrested once again, as is her daughter, in an effort to force her to reveal where she has hidden Pasternak’s money.
Here’s what works: The underlying true story is mind-boggling. The training in spycraft is fascinating. The love affair between Irina and Sally is lovely. The plotting is solid and the prose is well-written.
Not as good: The men are pretty much cardboard characters and I couldn’t even work up much enthusiasm for Pasternak, even though he looked just like a young Omar Sharif in my brain. And if only one of the star-crossed lesbians could be honest with the other! And, at the end of the day, while I can accept that Dr Zhivago was filled with themes that were not Soviet-approved, what was the end result of this espionage? Going by the world today, not much. There was a lot of talk of love in this book, but not a lot of actual heart.
So how do the two spy novels stack up? Starting out, I believed that The Secrets We Kept would come out on top, because it was so well-researched and had such a broad scope. Plus, seriously, the blurbs and reviews were astounding. However, American Spy was much more compelling, the main character had a very strong voice, and the reader cared much more about the outcome. Therefore, the ranking keeps Lauren Wilkinson’s book in the #1 spot.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author