This is the story of an undeclared state of war, and the female victims of the secrets and lies that were produced. It is the story of a book which changes lives even during the writing of it; it has the potential to change much more. Risk, excitement and the heady power of love are sharply contrasted with the fear and disturbance that a life of secrets can result in. This is the story of typists at the Agency in Washington, America, educated women who type the secrets that men create, discuss and sometimes act on. On the edge of news, adventure, they maintain their silence but also speculate. It is the story of a woman, Olga, beloved of a man who is at once famous as a writer but also regarded as a threat. She is the muse but also the keeper of potentially explosive secrets. The story of Irina, vulnerable yet chosen to make a difference. Sally, the traffic stopping beauty with her own secrets. Secrets and the power of books to make a difference dominate this intense novel when various women are given a voice. Its intensity is increased by the vivid descriptions of clothes and settings which reflect the enormous research undertaken by the author. This is a book which stands alone in terms of subject matter, and the singular idea of using the novel Doctor Zhivago as a basis for much of the story. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book opens with a description of the lives of the typists, educated young women who have to seize their chances to compare notes on the men who run the department. Then viewpoint then changes to the words of Olga, seen as the “Muse”, the mistress of Boris Pasternak. She faces a time of great challenge because of her relationship, and the importance of a novel which is becoming significant in the last days of Stalin’s rule. She lives in a society of surveillance, and even when the pressure eases in some ways she knows the danger she still lives with. Meanwhile, Irina lives a difficult life with her mother, without a father who was a victim of the persecution that Olga would recognise. Her inner conflicts become more complex as she tackles a lifestyle and a job that throws her expectations completely out of kilter. As the chorus of typists analyse, wonder and reach conclusions, the tension increases and the stakes of a novel’s impact rises.
This tense novel combines the nature of a thriller, a stylish plot and a literary read to great effect. The clever switches in viewpoint are so well done that an accurate picture is obtained of the secrets and motivations of many of the women. It is a complex plot well balanced and paced; the overall impression is of controlled revelation and explanation. A sophisticated read, this is a book which raises the stakes for significant historical fiction from a female point of view. The secrets that have been kept are important, and this excellent novel makes the reader appreciate the times of threat and realignment.