Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 30, 2022

The Secrets We Kept (2019), by Lara Prescott

What, I wonder, does a reputable book publisher like Knopf do, when they’ve paid $2million in a bidding war for a novel that turns out to be lame?  I’m guessing that they spend *a lot* of money on an avalanche of publicity so that it races up the bestseller lists before the reviews come out.

And what do those bestseller buyers do when they get home and read the book?  Well, some of them write very cross reviews at Goodreads  — which make an interesting contrast with the 5-star GR reviews and the ones from the quality press. e.g. at The Guardian.

The Secrets We Kept ought to be a terrific book. The premise is excellent, the potential for emotional investment is great.  The valiant fight against Soviet repression by outsmarting them offers bonus opportunities to mock America’s enemies as well.  This is the blurb:

Secretaries turned spies, love and duty, and sacrifice—inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago.

At the height of the Cold War, two secretaries are pulled out of the typing pool at the CIA and given the assignment of a lifetime. Their mission: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago out of the USSR, where no one dare publish it, and help Pasternak’s magnum opus make its way into print around the world. Glamorous and sophisticated Sally Forrester is a seasoned spy who has honed her gift for deceit all over the world–using her magnetism and charm to pry secrets out of powerful men. Irina is a complete novice, and under Sally’s tutelage quickly learns how to blend in, make drops, and invisibly ferry classified documents.

At Goodreads, my favourite review is from Paula.  I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I’m not going to try because I’ve wasted enough time on this tawdry novel.  (Besides, truth be told, I have no business writing a review anyway because the writing is so bad, I skipped lots of it.)

Awful. I should have known better than to believe the blurb, but Zhivago being a book dear to me, I thought it might illuminate an interesting part of the book´s path to publication and acclaim. Nowhere near that.
It´s chick lit, and very bad chick lit. The characters´ voices are interchangeable, besides being shallow, one dimensional and sometimes plain silly. The “romance” is badly done, the writing is choppy and repetitive.
The book (Zhivago) is just filler, even Pasternak and Olga are caricatures.
Yes, I´m angry. Angry at the publishers for selling junk for what it´s not, and at myself, for falling for it.

Her buddy reader Marylyce wasn’t impressed either.

Well I made it up to the 62% point until I flung this book into the dnf pile. I am pretty annoyed that what I thought I was reading, a spy drama concerning the bringing of the book Dr Zhivago to the west and publishing it as a cautionary tale against a totalitarian regime, became nothing but a chick lit story.

JanB abandoned it too:

DNF’d at 38%
I was expecting a suspenseful spy novel, but what I got was thinly disguised romance/chick-lit. It’s all too common with historical fiction in recent years, and why I struggle with the genre.
The love affair between Pasternak and Olga left me cold, the alternating narratives in the West chapters were confusing, the secretarial pool characters lacked depth, and the writing style was simplistic. Frankly, I was bored silly.

(I think JanB has been a bit unfair to HistFic.  There’s some really good historical novels around these days, it’s just that The Secrets They Kept just isn’t one of them.)

Olive Fellows generously rated it two stars:

I didn’t think it was possible to write a novel containing spies that completely lacks mystery or intrigue, but alas. So much promise, but it completely falls flat since it leans on totally hollow characters.

The saddest thing is that this wretched novel appears to have discouraged some readers from ever reading Doctor Zhivago…


I have two more ‘International Bestsellers’ for holiday reading on the bedside table. I chose them from the TBR because (like The Secrets They Kept) they have uninspiring titles, and it’s time to deal with them.  Read or recycle!

Author: Lara Prescott
Title: The Secrets We Kept
Publisher: Windmill Books, (Penguin Random House, first published by Knopf 2019
ISBN: 9781786090744, paperback, 456 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $19.99

 


Responses

  1. 456pp … it would take more than some publicity and a reputable publisher to make me take on a book I’m afraid. It would have to be a writer I knew or an award that I trusted. Which I guess is not very brave of me, but give me a taut novella any day – particularly if I’m taking a chance.

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    • But this book — the premise is so interesting. I mean, I already knew the CIA was involved in the dissemination of Doctor Zhivago, but the how and the why could and should have been an intriguing story. Plus I am fascinated by nations undergoing massive transitions, and especially the USSR/Russia, and I have been ever since I started reading post-Soviet novels reviewed at Winston’s Dad and I realised the world was undergoing a tectonic shift, and not just in Russia. (Not that I’m blaming Stu, this is all on me.)
      Instead what should have been fascinating in its own right is frizzed up with a bunch of inane gossiping typists, some #MeToo, and a frustrated lesbian love affair. And far too much about clothes.
      Plus, Prescott claims to have visited Russia for research, but I reckon it must have been a case of FIFO because the sense of place is pathetic and no better than a competent author could have gleaned from Wikipedia. I’ve been to St Petersburg and Moscow and, particularly in Moscow, you can still feel the ghosts of the USSR in the architecture.
      But herein lieth the lesson: buying online, or in this case from the Readings catalogue, doesn’t give you the opportunity to browse through the book to get a feel for it before you buy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘a case of FIFO’ had me almost choking on my morning coffee.
    It must have been such a disappointing read after the misleading blurb.

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    • *chuckle*
      Have your travels taken you to Russia yet?

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  3. Oh dear…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. O lordy!!! I must admit this had drifted into my sights because I love Zhivago so much, but luckily I had persuaded myself I would hate it. Glad to know I was right!!!!

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  5. What a shame! The premise sounds brilliant, which makes it all the more frustrating. I would have really liked to have read the book it promised to be, but I think I’ll skip this one now.

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  6. Well then, that takes care of that! 😄🐧🌻

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I steer away from anything published by Windmill… from my experience, they tend to publish general popular fiction and not literary fiction. And they tend to hype everything. I’ve fallen for the hype before. Your entertaining review only confirms my poor opinion of them.

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    • That’s a good tip.. I don’t think I’ve come across them before but my antennae will be on alert from now onwards.

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      • It sounds snobby of me, but I learned the hard way. The one exception was Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking, which I thought was brilliant.

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        • I don’t think it’s snobby to have a preference for a certain kind of book… and I think it’s smart to differentiate between publishers who deliver what we want and those who don’t.

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  8. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch! By the way, your friend Olive Fellows should stay FAR away from that book “Chaos at Carnegie Hall” because not only does it lack mystery or intrigue (despite the author’s attempts), but all the characters are dumb as bricks!

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    • It never tackles the really big mystery. How did the CIA tackle the bean counters (who as we know are too busy counting money ever to read a novel) so that they funded this improbable project? Imagine the scene…
      What’s this line item?
      Uhmm, it’s a top secret project in Moscow.
      It’s a lot of money, what are the projected outcomes?
      (Faint blush) … to topple the USSR.
      Good idea. Why does that involve expensive shoes and furs?
      That’s for our spies.
      You’re using (voice rises to a shriek) women?????

      Liked by 1 person

  9. And with an author called Lara it should have been better! Not that I enjoyed Zhivago when I read it, many moons ago. Thanks for warning us off this one.

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    • Oh, say it isn’t true… you didn’t like Zhivago?

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  10. Goodreads reviews are a great source IMO. Can be funny too. Odd isn’t it that great books pass unnoticed and sink without trace…
    Happy New Year

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    • Indeed. There is no accounting for taste, and while I think in general that is a good thing and there’s room for all tastes in the world of books, it does seem a pity that vast amounts of money are paid for disappointing books that are briefly popular, while authors writing great books that will last the distance are, metaphorically if not literally, starving in garrets.
      Of course if Knopf set aside some of the profits they make from their bestsellers to subsidise the publication of the kind of books that we like, that would be ok. But I don’t think profit-driven publishers do that, whereas the ‘gentleman publishers’ of an earlier time did.

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  11. As a short story writer, reading this blog post is frustrating and disappointing. It’s heartbreaking to see a publisher spend such a large sum of money on a novel that turns out to be poorly written and lacks depth in its characters and plot. It’s disheartening to see readers spend their time and money on a book that ultimately doesn’t deliver on its promise and leaves them feeling angry and let down. It’s a reminder to always be cautious when choosing what to read and to carefully consider the reviews and recommendations of others.

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    • Indeed, you are so right, Sebastian.
      TBH I considered not writing this pseudo-review because I prefer not to write negative reviews, but from the outset, I’ve reviewed everything I’ve read (and finished) on the blog, and I felt that if I had been bewitched by the premise of the novel, then others of my readers might feel the same.
      It shows the stupidity of these bidding wars we hear about. $2million is a breath-taking amount of money and a publisher who’s spent that kind of money has to recoup it so they may not apply the most rigorous of publishing values once they realise what they have on their hands. This is another reason why small indie publishers are more reliable. They’re not in that league, they don’t have that kind of money and they can’t afford to lose money on what they publish. So when their books hit the bookshops, they are MS that were chosen wisely by the publisher and turned into books that are the best they can be.
      Good luck with your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The Zhivago angle would be a draw for me but oh dear that description about the one spy in the blurb would have be putting the book back onto the bookshop table rapidly.

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