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.

Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan offers an unexpected bonus for bibliophiles in his latest book – Sweet Tooth. To embellish the main action of the beautiful young British spy, Serena Frome, whose reading taste ranges from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann, McEwan includes short stories seemingly unconnected to the main plot; each could stand alone while subtly revealing the underpinnings of the main character.

Reluctantly majoring in mathematics at Cambridge, Serena nurtures her love of novels and writes for an undergraduate newsletter. A middle-aged undercover agent, posing as a history professor, becomes her lover and recruits Serena into the British internal intelligence service after graduation – not a position of glamour or prestige for a woman in the 1970s. Her literary bent is noticed at the agency and she is promoted from file clerk to spy. Her first assignment is monitoring a fiction writer, Tom Haley, with an inclination to anti-communism. As preparation, Serena reads Tom’s short stories – clever extras provided by McEwan.

Of course, she falls in love with her target, and, you may now refer back to the book’s opening paragraph…

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The spy story is secondary to the author’s opinionated rambling, but the historical data, references to authors, and the intrigue of the deception may keep you reading.  Much of the rumination involves Serena’s interaction with her love interests: Tom, her suborned writer; Tony, her mentor and duplicitous double agent; Max, her elusive supervisor.  As Serena’s affair with Tom gains momentum, the possibility of her being discovered as an undercover agent increases.

If you remember the surprising conclusion to McEwan’s Atonement, the ending to  Sweet Tooth will be a disappointment in comparison.  The final deceit is uneventful, with universal betrayal as the theme.  I had the same feeling when On Chesil Beach ended  – regret; I may take a break from McEwan’s anticlimactic thrills for a while.