Sarah Blake: The Postmistress (2010)

The wireless crackles with news of blitzed-out London and of the war that courses through Europe, leaving destruction in its wake. Listening intently on the other side of the Atlantic, newly-wed Emma considers the fragility of her peaceful married life as America edges closer to the brink of war. As the reporter’s distant voice fills the room, she sits convincing herself that the sleepy town of Franklin must be far beyond the war’s reach. But the life of American journalist Frankie, whose voice seems so remote, will soon be deeply entangled with her own. With the delivery of a letter into the hands of postmistress Iris, the fates of these three women become irrevocably linked. But while it remains unopened, can Iris keep its truth at bay?

I wanted to like The Postmistress and for 200 pages I really did. It has a cinematic quality to it, the descriptions are so perfect, you think you are watching a movie. A movie like Pearl Harbor, not The Draughtsman’s Contract, that’s for sure, but still, it’s an achievement. Also the story is really interesting for far more than two thirds of the book and then it sadly collapses. What starts out as an entertaining and very well-researched read becomes slightly insipid.

The Postmistress interweaves the lives of three very different American women. Frankie Bard, a war reporter, Emma Fitch, the young wife of a doctor and Iris James, the postmaster (she insists on calling herself “postmaster” and I never really got the title).

The story that is told in the book takes place in 1941. During the first two thirds of the book, Frankie is in war-torn Europe, reporting live on the radio, during the Blitz and later from different cities in France. Emma and Iris live both, in the fictional small town Franklin in Massachusetts and hear Frankie’s broadcasts that brings the war into their living rooms. They feel Frankie’s engagement, they live the tragedy with her. They are so far away if it wasn’t for Frankie the war would seem almost unreal.  Apart from Harry Vale, Iris’ fiancé, no one in Franklin, Massachusetts thinks that America will ever go to war, even though the draft has started.

The plot starts to get silly when Emma’s husband decides to go and help in London. He seeks atonement for a “medical accident” for which he feels responsible.

The second third of the book shows Frankie travelling with various trains from Germany to Portugal to interview refugees on the trains. She collects the stories on disks and those voices will later be listened to – thanks to a huge story-twist – in Franklin.

The central story is the one part of the book that I didn’t like and this is unlucky because it ties the three parts together. The idea was to tell the story of a letter that is not delivered because the postmistress decides to hold it back.

Something else that didn’t quite work for me is due to the handling of the characters. Although all three women get their equal share at the beginning, it becomes ultimately Frankie’s story. The other two seem to be mere vehicles to make the plot work.

Sarah Blake writes in her after-word that Frankie couldn’t have had access to a portable disk recorder at that time. What she uses came into usage in 1944 and enabled live-recording from the battlefields.

I took liberty with the date because World War II was the first war that was brought into people’s living rooms by radio, and I wanted to highlight the power of the voice to convey the untellable, the refugees speaking into an air into which they will vanish.

Sarah Blake studied a lot of books on female war reporters, Martha Gellhorn and many other books on WWII. The themes are decidedly interesting and it is no wonder the book has A Reader’s Guide and Discussion Questions. An ideal choice for a book club I presume. Occasionally I wonder if these Reader Guides are not meant to justify the book and ultimately to sell it. It strikes me that I see this more in more in books, even in so-called American literary fiction.

The history of female war reporters and the evolution of reporting is interesting. I think the book also captures very well how far away the war seemed to the Americans. It looks at the way people go on about their lives while in another part of the world people go through terrible things. This seemed very timely and I was reminded of the situation in Japan. We are here and safe while people in another country fight for their survival. How do we go on living as if nothing was happening?

If you are still curious, here is The book’s homepage where you can read the first chapter.

22 thoughts on “Sarah Blake: The Postmistress (2010)

  1. I have this book to read but have heard only mixed reports of it. I do wonder whether the book club book label with those discussion questions is readily attached to patchy books – because that if nothing else, becomes a ready talking point. But there are some publishers (HarperCollins springs to mind) who provide the extra materials as a matter of course to most of their novels. Now Martha Gellhorn is a fascinating woman and a brilliant writer – she’s definitely worth reading.

    • I was actually thinking that the best I got from the book is the reading list in the back and was thinking that it might be more interesting to read Martha Gellhorn.
      I have never seen a German or French book with a Reading Group Guide. It strikes me as very Anglo-Saxon. It isn’t a bad thing per se, it’s rather problematic that they are often attached to a certain type of book.
      I will be interested to see what you make of it, should you read it.
      I wouldn’t be surprised if it was made into a movie.

  2. For a book you didn’t like, you still manage to write an impressive review.
    It’s good that you can finish the book. 2/3 good part will usually made me in between, to continue or to stop.

    • I tried to do it justice. My problem is rather that I cannot leave a book unfinished unless it’s really horrble or way too boring. I was still interested what would happen and the ending could have been different. The topic of radiobroadcasting is interesteing. That’s all they had at the time in terms of immediacy. Newspapers are totally different. I think this was more a case of the wrong reader for the book. Someone else will love it.

        • I should know better by now. There is a certain type of book that doesn’t work for me and additonally I think this one really has flaws. The Remains of the Day is still on my tbr pile.

    • I wasn’t really expecting you to pick this up, even if it had been somewhat better. Considering how many books I haven’t read yet and how little time I have, it was a bit careless. On the other hand I like it sometimes when I read and totally forget I am not watching a movie.
      I am a huge Greenaway fan. I need to re-watch all of his movies.

  3. I’ll be starting this book this weekend for an upcoming blog tour. I just love WWII novels so my expectations are high for this one, so I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t fully enjoy it. Thanks for the honest assessment, though. 🙂

    • I always feel bad when writing a review like this. I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t read it yet. I really thought it had a lot of potential. I’m curious to see what you will make of it. Her descriptions are great, that’s undeniable.

      • Don’t feel bad! We’re not going to love every book we read. And I honestly like seeing a mix of reviews to get a better idea of what I’m in for.

        Btw…still haven’t received the Rebecca West book from the library. I checked on it today, and they requested it from another library so it’ll get to me faster, but they said it could take a week. So I’ll read it as soon as it gets to me, but I’ll probably be late participating in the discussion. 😦

        • I prefer reading an honest review but I know by now that also authors read blogs, I had more than one comment and e-mail from writers, so I do feel a bit bad for them as well. It’s the “risk” when you review books that are fairly new. Anyway, I will be curious to see what you thought of it. That’s a shame about the West book but it is really short, maybe you will still be able to make it. I wonder if there isn’t an online version available.

  4. I read this one when it first came out and agree that it was very much a mixed bag. There were elements of the story that I liked and others that didn’t seem to jive as well together. The description on the US edition (not sure if it was changed when it was published in the UK) was also a bit misleading I thought. I was expecting something slightly different than what I read. As for the reading group questions–not sure about Europe but reading groups are quite popular here–I know lots of people who are in them and expect publishers are capitalizing on that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have the extra materials in the book–sometimes the author interview or background info is really interesting, but you can often tell the sort of book that will get this treatment!

    • I always add the blurb to the review, as you know and this time I chose the one from another edition, as, like you, I read the American one and thought it would be a completely different novel. I agree, it is super misleading. I thought the “letter part” would be something totally different.
      I like extra materials like we have them in the editions of classics but I also enjoy author interviews. There is one editor who includes the author’s favourite books and things like that, I like this too.
      Book Clubs are not the fashion here at all. In the UK probably but not on the Continent. The problem is rather the type of book club. I could imagine joining a book club and discussing Anna Karenina or Gravity’s Rainbow but not The Postmistress or The Help (still might read it). I would prefer to talk about technique and style and not topics and themes.

      • Honestly I think a lot of book groups are almost more social than anything else–with the book as the topic but often discussions go off in other directions. That’s why I no longer belong to a local book group.

        • That’s a bit what I thought it would be like. The book being he starting point to talk about your own life and that is NOT my cup of tea. I’d enjoy a group where people talk about technique.

  5. Well, we can’t always read wonderful books, can we? The cover is terrible, looks like low-brow romance.

    My kindle version of The Return of the Soldier has a reading group guide too. I wasn’t tempted to look at it. Every thing that can link literature and school is a put off for me.
    Very Anglo-Saxon, I agree. The comments before comfort my opinion : they have more reading groups than us. Here every time I’ve heard of reading groups they were for retired people.

    • I was telling myself that it will make me appreciate other books more. I was reading Laxness and Hustvedt’s memoir in parallel and they are both excellent but not the lightest of reads, plus I’m under huge pressure at work. Guess I needed something easy. It’s actually not a romance at all and I didn’t get that impression from the cover. I actually liked it because of the color and the oldfashioned feel. I write a lot with ink… Yes, shame on me for being sentimental. Sentimentality in book choices gets punished right away.
      I decidedly think the book-club is Anglo-Saxon but there are also huge differences from one book club to the next. I picture elderly ladies who discuss books while knitting socks. I guess you picture pretty much the same but I see bloggers who share what they discussed in their book clubs and the book choices are often interesting and the discussions insightful. Maybe we are a bit prejudiced.

  6. I nearly bought this because I love the cover. After flicking through it at the bookstore a few times, I decided that it wasn’t my kind of thing. Shame, because I love that cover!

    • Yes, me too, I really liked it and got somewhat tricked into buying it… It wasn’t totally bad but there are so many great books out there, rather read these.

  7. I’ve seen some very mixed reviews of this, and by the sound of it I’m not sure I would enjoy it all that much either. It’s too bad, really, because most of my wartime reading has been from a British perspective, and it would be nice to find a great novel that did something different.

    • The idea to show WWII from an American perspective is really good and so is everything related to war reporting, just this “letter idea” did spoil it completely. It’s too bad as the first pages are really not bad at all. I had read a few reviews before reading it and none of them was really convincing.

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