Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Postmistress

The Postmistress / Sarah Blake
New York: Putnam/Penguin, c2010.
326 p.

This is one that's been on my shelf for a couple of years now -- it looked very good but you know how these things book and then another gets added to the pile and lo and behold, years pass before you get to the book you intended to read immediately after acquiring it!

Nevertheless, this was restored to the top of the pile thanks to my Postal Reading project. And I'm glad I finally did read it. I liked parts of it immensely, but found other parts not so great. Overall though, it was an absorbing read and one that I'd recommend as a great spur for discussion.

Set in the 40's, immediately before the US is convinced to join in with WWII, it tells the story of three women, whose narratives start out separately and slowly intertwine. First of course, is our Postmistress, Iris James (though she makes a point halfway through the novel that there are no "postmistresses" in the US, unlike England -- stateside they are all called Postmasters.) Iris is a red-head, a single woman who attracts a bit of attention when she arrives in the tiny town of Franklin, Massassachusetts to take over the post office. She takes her postal responsibilities very seriously, and still marvels at the process. Here is one of her musings:

All these letters, all these words scratched out one to the other, spinning their way toward someone. Someone waiting. Someone writing. That was the point of it all, keeping the pure chutes clear, so that anybody's letter  -- finding its way to the post office, into the canvas sacks, the many hued envelopes jostling and nestling, shuffling with all the others -- could journey forward, joining all the other paper thoughts sent out minute by minute to vanquish --

Next we have Emma Trask, young bride of local doctor Will Fitch. She is an orphan, totally alone in the world, when she meets Will and makes him the centre of her life. She is certain that she will be a wonderful small-town doctor's wife -- but she doesn't get much time to try as he volunteers to go to England to serve as a doctor there during the Blitz. Emma and Iris develop a relationship as Emma goes to the post office every day hoping for mail.

Then there is Frankie Bard, a radio reporter working in London, drawing pictures of the mayhem in Europe for listeners at home. Her voice is heard in the doctor's kitchen, in Iris' office, and serves as a reminder and a spur to American consciences. Frankie ends up travelling to Franklin when she is sent home from England on what would today be called a stress leave. All three have their problems and all three feel essentially alone. Frankie is modern and laissez-faire, smoking, drinking, and having quick anonymous encounters with men while in England (a scene that came a little as a surprise to me given the tone of the book until then). Emma is almost too fragile, her personality a bit one-note. Iris was the most complex to me, with her committment to her job, and yet her concomitant longing for love and the kind of sexual relationship that she had had no chance to experience.

Reading this, I enjoyed it, and found myself thinking about the characters until I could get back to the book. On some reflection, though, I find quite a few elements that make this not entirely successful for me. First of all is the last chapter. As I was reading I was already annoyed and frustrated that the book hadn't ended after the previous chapter. The main emotional thread of the book had been resolved nicely, and to me the final chapter just felt like excessive melodrama, an authorial overstep that wasn't necessary to the story. But then I hate sentimentality, and I felt as if I was being manipulated toward an emotional reaction that wasn't organic to the plot. If you've read this please do tell me what you thought of the ending!

There were various other little things that bothered me, but in the end, the book did hang together and was of sufficient interest and thoughtfulness that I enjoyed my reading experience. It was a collage of some of the experiences of women during war, from new angles that we don't often consider. With one of the main characters a radio announcer and another the Postmistress, it also gives us a glimpse at the world of communication in the 40's, and how much has changed.


  1. I listened to this last year as a downloaded audiobook on my phone, while I was on the treadmill, which I think is a different experience than reading a physical book. I know what you mean about the last chapter, but I am probably more inclined to sentimentality. I like books set in the first half of the 20th century so am already inclined to like this one based on time period. I liked seeing the stories behind the people, like the Austrian man.

  2. I also read this, but it has been a while. Your review brought the story into focus again. I enjoyed the book overall, and did not object to the ending as much as you did.

  3. I read this a few years ago now and really liked it. I think the section where Iris is travelling around Europe is one of the most powerful I have read in a long time. There were some parts that weren't as strong but that section will stay with me for a long time to come.

  4. Shonna - I'm interested, did the audio book use different voices or just one narrator? I don't listen to many, myself. I like the time period myself, and find I have read quite a number of WWII novels.

    Suko - perhaps I'm being a little harsh but I didn't think Harry deserved that...

    Marg - I think you are right, the sections with Frankie travelling through Europe -- those train rides -- they were very strong and probably the most gritty of the book. Also the images of the Blitz.

  5. This one had also been a part of my wish-list for a couple of years until about a week ago, when I decided to delete it. I remember that when it came out there was a surge of positive reviews, but since then they've been on the lukewarm side (noticing the same with The Night Circus).


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