By Sarah Blake
Disclaimer: Forgive this review... Despite the fact that I understand that The Postmistress is a well written novel and a fine example of what a good book should be, I actually had very little feeling for this book. I think it shows in this review. Not my best showing.
If a reviewer is allowed to get away with one word reviews, my review for the Postmistress would be thus: Good.
Good. In all its mundane glory. Good. Not "great" or "fabulous" or, as the bloggers say: "awesome sauce." Just plain, workman-style, meat-and-potatoes "good." So let's see if I can elaborate a bit on its all-around goodness...
The Postmistress is Sarah Blake's second novel (that's Sarah Blake the writer not Sarah Blake the porn actress... I should have been a bit more specific when I did my Google search... I truly... didn't.... know). The Postmistress is a well-paced, interlocking tale of personal tragedy and perserverence in the years preceding America's entrance in World War Two. Although there is no shortage of novels set during the Second World War, I have read very few that concern themselves with America during that inter rum period following the outset of war and America's entrance. Few people realize that America remained neutral for a long while after the beginning of the war and opinion was very much divided about whether America had an obligation to get involved. This division is adequately emphasized in Blake's narrative.
Historical quirks aside, The Postmistress is the concurrent story of three American women, two living in Franklin, Massachusetts (Emma and Iris) and one, a war correspondent based in London (Frankie). All three are loosely connected through various degrees of separation and their lives invariably collapse upon each other.
Through the eyes of Frankie, Blake is able capture the migratory chaos in Europe in the early years of the war, prior to the sealing off of the European coastline. Blake's descriptions of Blitz-torn London and war-torn France is well-done. Through Frankie, the reader gets a series of snapshots from across Europe as Jews from all over were frantically attempting to get off the continent. Thousands of people migrating toward the ports of Lisbon and Bordeaux in the hopes of gaining access to the dwindling number of ships en route to anywhere not under fascist rule. Frankie serves as both the ears and the conscience of the novel. Also, I couldn't help read her bits with a hard-boiled, transatlantic accent a la Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Hudsucker Proxy. I liked that.
Emma, the wife of Franklin's young doctor is frail and uncertain. She seemed to me to perpetuate the stereotypical young wife of the pre-war era (or perhaps Sarah Blake as a novelist?). When Emma loses contact with her husband who has volunteered to serve as a doctor in Blitz-ridden London, Emma stays behind and seems to progressively disappear once contact with her husband ceases (I'm skirting perilously close to spoilers here, so I'll pull back). In my mind's eye Emma has wide, staring eyes and finds spaghetti and meatballs to be exotic cuisine. I liked that, too.
The lynchpin of the story is Iris, the postmaster of Franklin's post office who stands at the center as the stories in the novel weave in and out of her hands via letters and visits to the post office. As postmaster (America does not make any gender-based distinction for the title therefore the title of the novel gains a certain irony), she performs with the diligence and attention of a bygone era, something that always makes me smile. I love characters that take their work seriously and perform their tasks with weight. It's a quality you so rarely find in anyone these days, outside of books. She also probably wears turtle necks and drinks copious amounts of Earl Grey tea.
A series of interesting secondary characters (including a fictionalized Edward R. Murrow) colors the novel in nicely. While this is not going to make any of my year end lists (best of or worst of) it is a very competent novel that had me locked in from the earliest pages. My only complaint is the title. While there's nothing wrong with The Postmistress per se, it felt like there needed to be some sort of relation tacked on the end such as The Postmistress's Daughter or Cousin or Accountant or some such thing. Perhaps I'm a littler jaded by all those similar titles that have over-populared bookstore shelves for far too long.
Regardless of my sarcasm, If you are looking for something nice for your late-summer reading, you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of The Postmistress. Blake's narrative is satisfactory. While it rarely takes any great leaps or chances, it holds its ground like a steady bass line. Blake allows the story unfold with the patience of a much older, more experienced author. She avoids the temptation of surging through scenes that deserve careful attention, she savors each scene as a pristine moment in history. These are the habits of an effective fiction writer and she executes well. Through her three main characters she serves up a neat slice of life on the Atlantic Rim circa 1941.
Like I said, it's good. Is it worth reading? Sure. Could you pass it by? OK. Would you be missing anything? Maybe. It's interesting that The Postmistress is often compared to Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Neither book offended me but both will be long forgotten by this time next year. But, if nothing else, this novel has me intrigued about what Sarah Blake might have to offer over the next few years. She has certainly stakes a certain claim on the literary landscape, despite my sardonic take on The Postmistress and its characters.