- The Good: Secretaries turned spies; a love story turns the tide of the Cold War
- The Bad: Not a thrilling spy novel; not a nuanced love story; not a referenced historical novel
- The Literary: A book about a book and the power of literature
During the height of the Cold War, Russian-American Irina Drozdov lands a job at the CIA as a typist, even though she was the second slowest in her application pool. But she’s soon given a secret second job to learn how to blend in, make drops, and ferry classified documents. The quiet, thoughtful Teddy is her first tutor, but she soon graduates to the glamorous and magnetic Sally Forrester. Meanwhile, in Russia, Boris Pasternak’s muse and mistress Olga must bear the weight of her lover’s new novel Doctor Zhivago, deemed to be anti-Soviet.
I like that this novel is about the impact a novel can have on society. A simple love story, the magnus opus of the Russian cloud poet, is smuggled out of Russia, published abroad, and eventually smuggled back into Russia, covers ripped off, stuffed into secret compartments—it’s all quite romantic. In reality, Pasternak, his wife, and his mistress and her family all suffered greatly. Olga was a woman deeply in love, whose love and loyalty persisted through the years despite being sent to a Gulag until the end of Stalin’s reign, always being second to his wife, and working tirelessly as his agent.
I also enjoy the female-centric stories of the typing pool and the spy network at home, although if you’re looking for a spy novel, you’ll be disappointed. The CIA and the operatives they employ are mostly male, but it’s the skills of their female spies that secure the coveted book. Irina’s success as a spy is partly due to her ability blend in, not attract attention, and be easily forgotten. Her skills serve as a theme for the female viewpoint, both the typists and Olga, who work tirelessly but are easily dismissed.
I find the love stories within to be just okay. Olga is tirelessly in love in with Pasternak, although, honestly, it’s unclear why she fell in love with him in the first place. Or why she continues to stay with him when he constantly put his work and his wife before her. Irina’s love story is better, which, when she finally accepts it, gives her character a much needed arc. It serves as a modern version of the doomed relationship in Doctor Zhivago.
Unfortunately, there is a lot more that falls flat in this novel. As historical fiction, I want more history, or at least a few sources. Instead the book feels like a drama loosely based on historical events. The typists are flat secondary characters. Most of the men are self-obsessed and demeaning towards women, with one notable exception is who too good, and one who is pure evil. I hoped that the two stories (east and west) would come together at some point, even in a tangential way, but alas, they remained separate and unconnected. Many of the alternating POV chapters seem unnecessary, and the transitions often confusing.
Despite the failings here, my interest is piqued to learn more about the publication surrounding Doctor Zhivago as well as to read the novel itself!