Monthly Archives: October 2019

THE SECRETS WE KEPT : a novel

THE SECRETS WE KEPT: a novel

Lara Prescott
Knoff 2019
Historical Fiction

★★★☆☆ 

When the men in black came, my daughter offered them tea. The men accepted… when they began emptying my desk drawers onto the floor… Ira… put the teacups back in the cupboard… One of the men… said, “it is time to go.”

“Have a seat, Olga Vsevolodovna… I am your humble interrogator… “Tell me,” he said. “What is this Doctor Zhivago about?”  – Excerpt from the opening chapter of The Secrets We Kept.

It’s shortly after the Second World War. The improbable and wary relationship of WWII allies, America and the Soviet Union, further sours in the post-War years entering a period now known as The Cold War. The US diplomat, George Kennan, declared before Congress in 1947, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation… by outside pressures.” One of the policies to achieve that end was called Cultural Diplomacy; a fancy term for a propaganda campaign to promote American values over tyranny and Communism.

In 2014, the CIA revealed a successful mid-century project of “cultural diplomacy” to disrupt the Kremlin’s message and to encourage American values in the post-war world using the power of the arts. Word had reached America that the beloved Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, was working on his first novel entitled Doctor Zhivago. The Kremlin, aware of Pasternak’s popularity and anti-communist politics, was doing everything in its power to suppress the much anticipated book without even knowing what the book was about. The US set about disrupting their plans.

Lara Prescott, in her novel, The Secrets We Kept, opens a window in the look-back machine to reveal what political and life altering machinations took place to bring Doctor Zhivago to the world.  The story told in multiple voices; several points of view.

The most compelling story line belongs to Boris Pasternak and his twenty-two-years younger mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya. Their love/hate story is based on fact. Loving an already married man and living in a repressed country was costly to Olga in so many ways. She was used by the Kremlin to weaken Pasternak’s resolve to finish his decades long work on Doctor Zhivago. The Soviet strategy was to learn the subject of the novel by leaning on Olga Ivinskaya. After weeks of harsh interrogation and failing to learn the substance of the novel from Olga, sentenced her to five years of hard labor at a Siberian gulag. Pasternak found that leading a duplicitous life, Olga’s years of incarceration, and the torture and deaths of friends and fellow colleagues of Pasternak, exacerbated his heart problems. He retreated with his wife, Zinaida, to the comfort of his remote dacha to finish his book. Upon Olga’s release from the Gulag, he bought her a small home nearby. (The Doctor Zhivago movie depicting these days at the snowy fictional dacha, Varinkino.)

Meanwhile, over in America, former members of the WWII Office of Strategic Services (OSS) regrouped and became the Central Intelligence Agency. Women who had served their country during the war in OSS clandestine activities, with some exceptions, found themselves reassigned to a typing pool. Fact. The characters in the typing pool are fiction. They were depicted as a giddy bunch consumed with marriage, the latest fashions and lunch dates. Cloistered within their ranks were women who were typists by day and secret “carriers” of sensitive material by night.

One of the typists, Irina, a daughter of a Russian émigré and an accomplished “carrier” is selected for further espionage training. Irina, quiet and introspective, had the ability to be overlooked in a crowd. She was assigned to an experienced spy for training. Sally, a flamboyant femme fatale was Irina’s polar opposite. In time, the two fell madly in love. Their lesbian love dangerous to the future of their careers.

The filler story becomes the actions of the CIA to receive a copy of the completed Doctor Zhivago from the Italian publisher who was able to secret out the original draft from Pasternak. After negotiating a copy from the Italian press, it was translated back into Russian. The final and dangerous step was smuggling the banned book back into Russia. It was accomplished, in the book with the help of the fictional Irina, by brave recruited Russians attending the Vienna World’s Fair.

It was a hard book for me to rate. The Boris and Olga story was my favorite. Their relationship was complex and left me wishing I could have asked Pasternak – Was the book worth the hell you put your family and Olga’s through?

The story of the CIA and the sacrifices and dangers faced by the clandestine workers was fascinating. But the book was billed as a thriller and I never got chills up my spine. I did get my feathers ruffled over the sexual bigotry; especially as women proved so admirably throughout WWII that they were more than airheads.

Finally the long drawn out lesbian affair between Sally and Irina was interesting but unnecessary to the book in my opinion. A worthy topic for sure, but seem to detract from the purpose of this story.

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely. But with the comment that this is a love story overall;  not a “deep-throat” spy novel.

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The Dutch House

The blue Oldsmobile station wagon rumbled up the pea gravel driveway parking in front of an aging architectural matron, known locally, as “The Dutch House”. The wealthy previous owners, now long dead, remain omnipresent leering down in life-size portraits over the delft blue mantel; their Dutch heritage visible in every room –  everything left just as it was the day they died – hairbrushes to bath towels.

Cyril Connor’s wife, Elna, is uncomfortable in this neighborhood. When Cyril announces this is their new home, Elna is in shock. Their five-year-old daughter, Maeve, is excited! Her brother, Danny, our narrator, not yet a twinkle in his father eye.

Serving as a docent, Cyril strolled room to room pointing out the silk curtains, flamboyant furniture, and the numerous objets d’art from a bygone era; oblivious to the distress manifestly growing on his wife’s face. A man more comfortable with real estate than human relationships. After they move in, the house suffocates Elna. She begins to spend time away from the house. Until one day she simply disappears without a farewell to her children. Their tight-lipped father says she has gone to India.

Years later – the same old blue Oldsmobile is  parked across the street from the Dutch House. Maeve now sits behind the wheel with Danny in the passenger seat. Listening in to their nostalgic conversation, it is obvious that devastating things have happened to them after their mother left them. They stare through the massive ground floor windows at the only constant in their past lives – the house – hoping they will find an answer to that unanswerable question -Why? Why to so many things. As we return to the house with them over the years, we witness Maeve’s strength of character and Danny’s development into a adulthood guided by his sister’s love. Together, this family of two, aided by several loyal friends, show us that in the midst of abject helplessness, life will go on, love will grow, compassion and forgiveness is possible.

After their mother left, their aloof father and the loving household staff established an unconventional family. Like cogs in a well-oiled machine, things ran smoothly for several years; right up to the day their father broke rank and brought home a young woman for a visit. Unlike their mother, Andrea Smith stepped over the threshold, glanced at the fretwork, cornices, and opulent furnishing with reverence and she nearly genuflected in reverence to the old house.

Cyril married Andrea and right from the start, the two Connor children played second fiddle to their step-mother’s plans. But as much as Andrea needled, belittled, and provoked anger at every turn, she never dented Maeve’s armor or broke the close bond with her younger brother. Behind the scenes, Maeve, despite struggling with her own life threatening diabetes, provided guidance, protection and affection to Danny and Andrea’s two younger children, now living in the Dutch House.

Cyril’s sudden death after four years of marriage to Andrea rocked the household. The Connor children are tossed to the wind, penniless and homeless – abandoned once again by a mother figure. Maeve shows us incredible strength of character and willingness to sacrifice her own dreams to stay close to her brother. They are not perfect and they do struggle but we watch as time and again they pick up the pieces and grow to become incredible adults. The ending is much warmer and fuzzier than you might imagine.

Loved the book. Recommend for book clubs.

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THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM

If Hedy [Lamarr]’s society had viewed her not simply as a blindingly beautiful creature, but as a human being with a sharp mind capable of significant contributions, they might have learned that her interior life was more interesting and fruitful than her exterior. – Author, Marie Benedict

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler  was born on November 9, 1914, into an upper-crust Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Her father, Emil, a successful banker, was frequently absent on business none-the-less he spoiled Hedy when he was home. He encouraged her education and her love of the arts. Her mother was caustic and critical of her father’s attentions and left Hedy to the care of tutors and nannies.

Hedwig was a very smart and lonely child. She found a way to mask her loneliness by creating alternate worlds expressed in little plays where she entertained her dolls. A childish habit that eventually lead to her internationally renowned acting career.

Europe,1933.
While a malevolence festered in Germany, on the stage in Vienna, Austria, Hedy, now a 19-year-old stunning beauty, had moved from dolls to become a well-known stage actress. In the audience at one of her performances was Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl, a shady Austrian arms dealer, known as the “Merchant of Death.” Mandl decided a stunning young wife accompanying him to lavish political dinners would be an advantage.  He possessively pursued her. Her parents, sensing the danger of displeasing this distasteful older suitor, advised her to marry him – ending her career as an actress. If rumors were true about the dangers for Jews in Europe, he might prove her family’s savior. Or so they thought.

Her marriage with Fritz began as a fairy tale but swiftly transitioned into a nightmare as her husband became obsessive, abusive, and controlling. Trapped into this bed of isolation and cruelty as her nation struggled to survive annexation by the Nazis, Hedy found she could use her beauty as a mask.

Behind the quiet bejeweled exterior, an active mind was engaged in learning secrets of the coming Anschluss and the annexation of Austria. It never occurred to her husband’s loyal servants or the powerful political figures, that this gorgeous woman sitting like a potted plant by her husband’s side, actually understood everything they discussed openly in front of her. Smiling demurely, wearing her mask of vapid airhead, she learned of weaknesses in the weapons of war sold by her husband and the plans for removing the Jews from society.

As Nazi troops gathered on Austria’s border, Hedy knew it was time to play her greatest performance. Using her contacts in the entertainment industry, she disguised herself and escaped her husband and the Nazis by emigrating to the United States – taking with her Nazi secrets. Unsure what to do with this knowledge.

In October, 1937, Hedy Kiesler Mandl stepped off a train in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr. Once more, relying on her well-honed skills as an actress, she enchants Louis B. Mayer from MGM Studios. She quickly becomes an internationally loved movie star. And once again, she finds herself controlled by men.

A chance meeting with the  avant-garde composer and pianist, George Antheil, led to Hedy making a friend who could look beyond the pretty face. Hedy, having spent hours in her husband’s personal library had amassed specific knowledge of torpedoes technology. Still struggling with what to do with her knowledge of the weaknesses in Nazi weaponry, she enlists Antheil’s help in creating technology that would improve the American Navy’s accuracy in torpedo accuracy.

They are successful. The patent office approves her invention and forwards the information to the Navy – who promptly refuses to take seriously anything invented by a woman. Yet, she had the last laugh. You can thank, Hedy Lamarr, for your cell phone. Her invention was instrumental in its development.

I am glad I read the book. It wasn’t a perfectly crafted book. The character development was weak. Some instances were covered poorly; while in America Hedy was approached to help orphaned European children by adopting. We see her reach for an application but we don’t learn until later that she did adopt a child.

Personally, I feel that the book would have been better if it was less a recitation and more invested in Hedy herself. Sadly, it came across to me as though we never really got behind Hedy’s mask. Perhaps that was intentional? It’s a good book. Just not great.

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