The Secrets We Kept

Dr. Zhivago is at the heart of Lara Prescott’s debut novel – The Secrets We Kept, as the action flips back and forth from Boris Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya in Russia to secretaries who are really American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in Washington, D.C.  How could a romantic epic raise the ire of the Russian government, especially Kruschev, and tempt the CIA to smuggle copies into Russia to prompt its citizens to question their government?

Although Pasternak’s novel is a love story, but with political undertones, Prescott uses historical research to reveal the constraints the Russian author and others in the country endured.  When the book is banned in Russia but published in Italy, and eventually everywhere in the world but in Russia, Olga, who is not only Pasternak’s muse and mistress but also his literary agent is sent to a Russian prison and he is under constant surveillance. Although I knew the story drawn from Pasternak’s life experience – the main character who does not leave his wife, while passionately connected to his beautiful mistress, I did not know the intrigue behind publishing the book in Italy and smuggling it back into Russia for “soft propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature . . . to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought.”   The Secrets We Kept proved educational as well as informative.

I found the East section of the book describing the lives and loves in Russia more compelling than the West with its secret missions and nebulous relationships, but the idea “that literature could change the course of history” was enticing and prompted me to find the book once banned in Russia – not that long ago.  Like many famous Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago has been adapted to film, and I vaguely remember watching the snowy scenes with beautiful Julie Christie and handsome Omar Sheriff, but I had never read the book. In fact, I may have only experienced great Russian novels late at night through the classic movie channel – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull. Pasternak was a poet first and his words were acclaimed as powerful as well as expressive when the Nobel Prize Committee cited him “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” This book is available for free from the Gutenberg Press, and it seems a good place to initiate my reading of Russian literature.

As the book flips back and forth from East (Russia) and West (CIA), the narrator shifts to different characters and it’s not always clear who is talking.  The Western section focuses on two secretary/agents and their intersecting personal lives, leading to an ambiguous ending, but the historical facts shine in the Eastern section.  Of course, like its Russian counterpart – the Secrets We Kept has been optioned for a movie but the book would make for an interesting book club discussion.

The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – The Dinner List

9781250295187   What five people, dead or alive, would you invite for dinner and conversation? Often asked of authors interviewed for the New York Times Book Review, I agree with Kate Atkinson – no writers. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand…and she shows up as one of the guests at a birthday dinner in Rebecca Serle’s The Dinner List.  

Although I expected a fluffy and perhaps happy piece of fiction (maybe it was the bright yellow cover), Sabrina’s love story is bittersweet and introspective.   Chapters alternate between Sabrina’s first person narrative of her relationship with Tobias and the dinner party with her wish list attendees.  Her father, Robert, is among them, as is her best friend Jessica, who periodically excuses herself to pump her leaking breasts.  Sabrina’s college philosophy professor, Conrad, offers literary allusions to the conversation.  Of course, Tobias, the boyfriend, is there, but the star of the evening is Audrey Hepburn.  Sabrina’s name is no accident; her parents were engaged after watching the movie, and Roman Holiday is Sabrina’s favorite film.

I usually prefer to create my own images of characters in a book, and the movie versions usually disappoint me with their choices of actors playing the roles, but the presence of Audrey Hepburn (coincidentally one of my favorites too) lent an exotic note to the narrative.  It was easy to hear her whispery notes when she sang Moon River to the group, and her graceful lithe movements as she lit a cigarette or motioned for more wine were easy to imagine. Serle is careful to include background notes of Hepburn’s childhood during the war and her post-acting humanitarian work with UNESCO, humanizing Hepburn as more than the actress who played Eliza Doolittle.  She becomes the voice of reason and a much needed maternal force for the overwrought Sabby.

The chapters describing the messy relationship between Sabby and Tobias, the conscientious girl with the wild artistic boy, seem to follow a formula, but as the dinner party conversation escalates into the reasons behind why the guests have been chosen, the story shifts and offers some surprises, including who is alive or dead.  Serle offers unlikely hope at times for a change in the universe, but the reader cannot suspend belief that far, and Audrey pulls us back to reality.  In the end, peace and love prevail, and the dinner ends with the guests leaving and Sabrina facing her life as it is.

The story reminded me of a movie spun out of romance and denial, but the premise of the dinner party gave it just the right twist to keep me wanting to find out how it would end at midnight.   I was sorry when it was over.

Who would I invite to a dinner party?  I have no idea, but I like Sabrina’s idea of going to a fancy restaurant instead of cooking, and like Sabrina, maybe I’d learn something more about those who attended.  How about you?

See the Movie, Then Reread the Book – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

8110V2WqqLL   After finishing reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society years ago, I remember thinking how sad the author had died and I would never read another of her stories.  The book stands as one of my all time favorites, and I eagerly anticipated the film version with three actresses from Downton Abbey in the cast – Lily James and Penelope Wilton, and Jessica Brown Findlay — perhaps better known as Downton Abbey’s dearly departed Lady Sybill.

Of course, I remember the feeling of the book but, as usual, I’ve forgotten all the details.  It was a pleasure to read it again after almost ten years.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, see it first – then reread the book.  Both are enjoyable and a comfort.

The movie and the book are the same, but different.  Of course, the book has all of the author’s quirky notes and asides required to be missing in a condensed film version, but the movie has lush images of the scenic English countryside to compensate, and it does select the most important moments to keep.  Although the book introduces the characters through letters, fewer appear in the movie and the letter-writing is replaced by getting Juliet to the island faster.  In the movie the description of Guernsey under occupation has less importance than the mystery of the missing Elizabeth – the fearless founder of the book club.

The characters retain their core values and tone but not always in the same form.  Handsome boyfriend Mark is an American publisher trying to woo Juliet away in the book; in the movie he is an American intelligence officer, still trying to get her to marry him, but a key role in finding Elizabeth is invented for him.   Romance gets more time in the movie, making the handsome staunch Dawsey more appealing for the happily ever after ending.

I missed the funny episode with Oscar Wilde’s letters to Granny Phhen and a few of the colorful characters who were eliminated,  but I’m not sure how the short movie could have accommodated them without a sequel. I liked the movie (how could I not) and appreciated its faithfulness to the story.

Rereading the book was a pleasure, and I found a few phrases I had forgotten  – some made me laugh:

  • I thought of my friends who own independent book stores with:   “Noone in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and noone in their right mind would want to own one…so it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it.”
  • I thought of myself with:  ” so far my only thought is that reading keeps you from going gaga. You can see I need help.”
  • I thought of book clubs with: “We took turns speaking about the books we’d read. At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away…”

and my favorite:  “I deny everything.”

Related Posts:

Dear Mrs. Bird

dear-mrs-bird-9781501170065_lg   When I heard The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society book was soon to be a movie, it motivated me not only to read the book again but to read Dear Mrs. Bird, a book with a similar vibe. The books have a lot in common – letters, Britain, World War II, romance, and characters I would pick as friends. 

Young women in Emmeline Lake’s time usually tried to keep busy until they were married, and her best friend and flat mate, Bunty, does just that as she works as a secretary in the war office.  But Emmy has hopes of becoming a brilliant journalist and when she answers an ad for The London Evening Chronicle, she expects to be on her way to war correspondent.  To her surprise, the job is no more than typing for the paper’s Dear Abby, a huffy overbearing woman who would rather cut up letters sent to her than respond.  Her advice, when given, is harsh and unforgiving – not at all as sympathetic as her readers’ hopefully expect.

As Emmy begins to surreptitiously answer some of the more earnest enquiries, she gradually moves the advice column into a better place, until she gets caught.  The story includes vignettes of romance and correspondence with a promising beau and Emmy’s erstwhile social life, but Pearce does not shy away from describing the horrors of the bombing in London.  She deftly weaves the characters’ strength into a frivolous plot as they bravely survive everyday in a blitzed city while managing to keep hope and aspirations alive.

If you enjoyed Guernsey and other similar books (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, 84 Charing Cross, The Summer Before the War), Dear Mrs. Bird will be a pleasure to read.