Thursday, March 24, 2011
Book Review - The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
I wasn’t going to read Sarah Blake’s novel, The Postmistress, not because I thought I wouldn’t like it, but because I already have so many books to read that I really didn’t have time for any more unless they promised to be spectacular. However, I was in the grocery store the other day, and there it was, and I have to admit, I’m a sucker for gorgeous cover art. The violet rose, the old letters, the promise of a story set in wartime, I really couldn’t resist.
The Postmistress revolves around three female characters: Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts, a little seaside town at the end of Cape Cod; Emily Fitch, the naïve, new bride of Franklin’s doctor, Will Fitch; and Frankie Bard, a young, blonde American woman who works for Edward R. Murrow in London at Broadcasting House.
The book opens in 1940, and Iris James has been postmistress of Franklin for about a year. She takes her duties very seriously and sees herself as the “perfect vessel through which people’s thoughts and feelings could pass and upon which nothing snagged or got stuck.” At the age of forty, she’s resigned herself to a spinster’s life, until Harry Vale, the town mechanic, who spends his free time watching for German U-boats from the dunes of Cape Cod, takes a romantic interest in her.
Emma Fitch, who Iris first encounters while the former is reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on a train, is a naïve, young woman, arriving in Franklin for the first time in order to settle down with Will Fitch, the man she married.
Frankie Bard is a young, blonde, leggy American from Greenwich Village, whose voice is heard in every home in Franklin, and in every home in America. She’s a “radio girl,” currently working for the acclaimed Edward R. Murrow at Broadcasting House in London. Frankie reports on the Blitz that devastates London and tries to put a human face on the war.
Will Fitch, probably the most important male character, is Franklin born and bred. His father owned the town bank, but he lost it, and most of the money belonging to the citizens of Franklin, during the crash of ’32. Armed with his medical degree, Will has returned to Franklin from his university studies in an attempt to make sure the sins of the father do not permanently stain the reputation of the son, and determined to give back to Franklin something of what his father took away. Our plans never seem to work out quite as we’d hoped, however, and so it is with Will Fitch. Something goes terribly wrong for the young doctor, and he feels the only place he can gain redemption is in London, trying to be of some use to those injured in the Blitz.
The life of Frankie Bard will intertwine briefly with the life of Will Fitch, but before the two part, Frankie will be entrusted by Will to deliver a letter to Emma back in Franklin. Frankie will also become privy to the real reason why Will left Franklin for London and why he almost certainly will never return.
Back in Franklin, Iris James also has a letter, also one that will impact the life of young Emma Fitch. Although it flies in the face of everything she believes in regarding the very sanctity of the United States Post Office, Iris secrets the letter in her desk and decides not to deliver it to the person for whom it was intended.
Although it seems as though Iris James will be the protagonist of The Postmistress, in truth, the reader learns very little about this likable woman. It is Frankie Bard, also likable, who really carries the book. The problem with that is the fact that it takes Blake approximately 250 pages to get to Frankie’s story, her part of the book, though Blake sets up Frankie’s story, and her theme, the unreliability of “truth telling” and the mistakes made in judgment during wartime on page 3: “Every story—love or war—is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.” While I liked Frankie, I did want to know more about Iris and Emma, especially during the first third of the book.
Even though I was drawn most to Iris, the postmistress of the title, and even though I felt her story could have been, and should have been, the most important in the novel, it is Frankie Bard’s story that carries the most punch and emotional involvement for the reader. When Frankie’s dreams of getting into continental Europe and discovering the real story of the Jewish displacement are realized, The Postmistress really becomes involving reading. Hauling around a thirty-pound recording device, Frankie travels by train across France in 1941 with Jewish refugees attempting to escape the Nazis and reach Spain or Portugal, where they hope to board a boat headed for the US or Canada. This makes for a very compelling storyline for the character of Frankie Bard, and it is she, rather than Iris James, who is the real soul of this book, and her story has both immediacy and heart. This part of Frankie’s story, in my opinion, contains Blake’s most poignant and most compelling writing:
But it was nearly impossible now to look away from what was clearly happening in Europe. The Jews were in a permanent, ceaseless pogrom. And the patrician habit of deflecting strong passion or insight first into calmer waters, to reflect, to take stock, belong to her mother’s generation. Fine for Mrs. Dalloway, impossible for Mrs. Woolf. A writer, a real writer, in possession of a story headed straight for its rapids, eyes on the water, paddling fast for the middle in order to see well, as closely as could be. In order to see like that, one had to entertain the fact of brutal, simple cruelty. The Germans were, in fact, gathering the Jews in camps and ghettos and simply letting them die there.
Sarah Blake, through Frankie Bard, wants to convey to her readers that Americans were too blasé during the years between 1933 and 1941, that Americans, and even many Europeans, simply went about their daily lives and remained oblivious to what was going on in the world as Hitler came to power in 1933. And of course, the world was too blasé. The world, as Sarah Blake and Frankie Bard insist, should have paid far more attention. Frankie’s passion about this causes the middle section of The Postmistress to soar, and the book is extremely emotionally affecting.
I thought Blake did a wonderful job in capturing the quaintness, and the mean-spiritedness that exists in almost every small town. That felt very authentic to me. However, I didn’t feel she did quite as good a job with either her dialogue, which I found adequate, but rather flat, or the characters in Franklin. As already mentioned, Iris isn’t developed enough; we learn far too little about her. Emma, I think, was meant to be sweet and naïve, but comes across as far too wishy-washy. I think Blake should have given the woman a little backbone. Readers are usually attracted more to strong characters who act than they are to weak, passive ones. Emma tells us that she “felt invisible” before meeting her husband, Will:
For the first time in her life, with Will, she had come to see herself because she’d look down and see herself – her waist, her arms, the bone on her wrist – in his hands. Because he’d been watching her. Like a fairy kissed into being, or the mermaid suddenly walking....
Women today, I think, need more than a man’s admiration to feel whole, but it really wasn’t a stretch for me to see a woman in the early 1940s feeling the way Emma felt. What I couldn’t buy, however, was Emma’s lack of action when Will tells her he’s going to London. Will’s argument, after all, wasn’t very persuasive:
Sweetheart, there are people over there who need help, who need another pair of hands, and I can bring them. That’s the deal. That’s what you were saying without saying it right out. When we know there are people in need, right now, in the same breath as what we are breathing, we cannot look away. It is not abstract. We have to go. That is humanity. The whole thing relies on it. Human beings do not look away.
Sure, decent human beings do not look away, and we all help if we can, but decent human beings also do not leave their new brides on their own immediately after marriage. I wanted to say, “But what about Emma, Will? What about your wife? Your new wife?” I would have thought Emma would have said the same, would have spoken up for herself, but Emma refuses to actively support Will’s decision, and she also doesn’t tell him she’s pregnant and needs him at home, with her.
I also couldn’t buy the fact that so many Americans were puzzling about the meaning of war:
There were things being broken we had no American names for. There was war. What did it mean, War?
WWI had taken place only twenty-two years previously, so presumably many Americans would be intimately familiar with “what was broken” and “the meaning of War.”
All-in-all, The Postmistress seems very well researched and very competently written, but it lacks something that gives it a needed punch. WWII stories have been told time and time again. If a writer is going to bring us yet another one, he or she needs to make it extraordinary. While I thought The Postmistress was a good book, in the end, I didn’t think it was extraordinary, and I didn’t feel it had anything new to offer.
Recommended: Only if you feel you must read every book by Sarah Blake or every book written during this time period. If you do decide to read it, please know that it is, for the most part, very competently written.