A critical moment in history meets an array of meticulously wrought characters in The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, $26.95), an enthralling debut novel from Lara Prescott. Set in the throes of the Cold War, the story unfolds through the eyes of Irina, Sally, and Olga—each with a poignant side of the story to tell. Irina, a CIA typist and budding spy, is mentored by the enigmatic Sally, a sharp-witted and glamorous Agency swallow, as they both work to publicize Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Their story is deftly interwoven with the voice of Olga, whose character animates the real life figure of Pasternak’s mistress and muse. Prescott crafts her protagonists in such a way that they maintain sharp individuality, yet share a coequally powerful feminine voice. The historical aspect of the novel is carefully researched, shedding light on both the worldwide and personal impact of Doctor Zhivago. The author frames the setting in such fine detail that the reader could walk the very paths being described through Washington D.C. today. Everything about this story, from the relatable dynamics between characters to the elegantly described clothing they wear, feels close enough to touch.
Olive, Again (Random House, $27) reprises the irrepressible protagonist of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, but no prior experience is necessary to savor this delightful
and moving novel. Described as “difficult,” even “formidable,” Olive, a retired seventh-grade math teacher, is blunt to a fault—she’s a woman who “thinks everything is crap.” Well, yes and no. “Anything could be true with Olive,” someone notes, and as Strout shows in thirteen interlocking stories, Olive is also needy, regretful, and always surprising. Nor, despite her considerable reputation, does she always steal the show. Strout gives her a strong supporting cast, and we meet a first-time mother who goes into labor at a friend’s baby shower; an eighth-grader whose difficult adolescence fits eerily into the drama playing out in the home of the elderly couple she cleans for; a mediocre student who becomes the U.S. Poet Laureate; and two brothers from Strout’s 2013 The Burgess Boys, still coming to grips with the childhood accident that killed their father. Presented with deep compassion, each of these characters is fully realized, as is Crosby, Maine, where, through its neighborhoods, shops, and old age home, Strout shows the limits of the adage that everyone knows each other in a small town. Rather, “there are always secrets.” Ranging from unfaithfulness to abuse, these boil down to “the essential loneliness of people,” which not even Olive is immune to.
Quichotte (Random House, $28), the Booker short-listed new novel by Salman Rushdie, is a retelling of the 400-year-old tale of Don Quixote adapted to today’s digital era. Ismail Smile is a pharmaceutical salesman who loses his job and sets off across America, accompanied by his imaginary son Sancho, to win the heart of Salma R, a TV star he’s fallen in love with. Then, however,
we learn that this is just a story within a larger story and that Quichotte, as Ismail signs himself in his love letters to Salma, is a character in a draft of a novel written by a mediocre crime novelist
named Sam DuChamp. Mind boggling in a true Rushdie way, full of pop culture references, strange characters, and even stranger occurrences, the novel is a mirror of the times we live in, reflecting
back to us how estranged we’ve become, as we perpetually look for love via our phone, computer, or TV screens, all the while living in the fantasy world rather than the real one. But as Rushdie’s wise protagonist tells us, this is “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen”, hey?