2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Secrets We Kept

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1940-1959.


40700317._SY475_I just finished The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott and, while I enjoyed the subject and characters, I found the writing to be kind of bland.

I’ve noticed that’s an issue for me with a lot of popular historical fiction. Anyone else?

It’s like if a book has a woman in a pretty dress on the cover, I know it will most likely be unremarkable. And yet, I am drawn to it.

That’s how I found The Secrets We Kept, cover out on the New Fiction shelf at the library, tempting me with that gorgeous green dress.

And despite the bland writing, I liked the subject matter. The book centers on CIA typists turned spies during the Cold War. They become involved in a mission to sneak into the USSR and bring back the unpublished novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

If that dress hadn’t compelled me to read the book, the synopsis certainly would have. What a plot. Imagine a book being so important—an unpublished book no less—that the CIA would conduct a full-on mission to sneak the manuscript out of the USSR. Quite a story.

But two things left me feeling kind of meh about this one. The first, of course, is the somewhat pedestrian writing, which I found plain with spurts of the melodramatic. I honestly almost quit reading when I read this:

“Three and a half years had passed since we shared a bed, and we didn’t waste time. His touch shocked me. It had been so long since I had been touched. We came together like crashing boulders that echoed across Moscow.”

Eww.

The second issue was the number of narrators.

The are:
The Typists – the CIA typing pool
Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress
Irina Drozdov, the typist turned spy
Sally Forrester – spy

Sometimes the book switches between the three main narrators, but then a new chapter follows another character in a third-person omniscient voice, and you’ll be pulled out of one story and into another, however briefly.

Prescott did a good job of distinguishing the voices though. I thought she excelled at writing from the perspective of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress (and the inspiration for Dr. Zhivago), and Russian-American typist Irina. Those perspectives were the most interesting in the book to me and I wish the entire book had switched between just those two. In the beginning, Olga is sent to the Gulag and her experiences there are fascinating and frought with danger, which made for good reading. But, in general, I thought the constant alternating between narrators diluted the story, giving us only a surface look at the characters and historic events.

I kept reading it, so that says something. I wanted to find out how the story ended. And I think Prescott does a good job of keeping the reader immersed in the historical setting. But, while the plot is interesting and Prescott clearly researched her topic, the book came across as “history light” and I thought it was light on character development too.

OK, I just googled for reviews and there is so much fanfare out there about this one! So, take what I say with a grain of salt. I guess people generally love it.

WashPo loved it.

Lynn Neary of NPR seems to like it.

It did convince me that I need to read Dr. Zhivago, so there’s that. If you have read it, I would love to hear what you thought!

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