Newest Review: ... seems incapable of fleshing her characters out. Both Emma and Iris are particularly one-dimensional for instance. Iris is portrayed as a ... more
The Postmistress Fails to Deliver
The Postmistress - Sarah Blake
Member Name: rosebud2001
The Postmistress - Sarah Blake
Advantages: The cover is nice, it ends.
Disadvantages: Poor characterisation, lack of tension, historical howlers
The last time I was met with this conundrum of to buy or not to buy, I struggled between a bit of misery bio or a bit of escapist fiction - neither being genres I am particularly fond of. Then I spotted "The Postmistress" and for once in my life, was attracted to a book by the cover - finding the shot of a serious looking woman in 1940s garb with a skyline from London during the Blitz rather compelling. Upon reading the blurb I was seduced by author of "The Help", Kathryn Stockett's fulsome praise and decided to buy it. What I ended up with was misery fiction and I am still reeling a bit at allowing myself to judge a book by its cover.
"The Postmistress" has two settings but tells the stories of three American women during 1940-41 in the era of America's phoney war before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
Frankie Bard is a dynamic young war correspondent who broadcasts to America from Blitz torn London. Spinster Iris James is the new postmaster at the Cape Cod town of Franklin. Emma Fitch is another new arrival in Franklin, as the local doctor's new wife.
Emma and Iris listen to the radio reports of the war never dreaming that Bard could touch their lives further. But one day Frankie finds a letter which will follow her over a war torn Europe before heading back across the Atlantic to Massachusetts - but will she be able to deliver it?
I had high hopes for this book and have to say I was disappointed to find these hopes dashed within about the first ten minutes of reading it.
One of the reasons for this is a matter of personal preference and is probably minor for most people but I really dislike how Blake has used the legendary American journalist Edward Murrow as a character in this book - fictionalising him as she goes and, I believe, doing him a great disservice in the process.
Furthermore, Blake seems incapable of fleshing her characters out. Both Emma and Iris are particularly one-dimensional for instance. Iris is portrayed as a boring, methodical woman devoid of much in the way of a personality. Emma, who is revealed as an orphan comes across as needy and clingy. Both women have a love interest but only Emma's husband Will is of any interest - a doctor who loves her with what seems to be an almost unhealthy obsession but who then flies in the face of all Blake has told us about him by abandoning her.
His departure is crucial to the storyline of the book but doesn't make sense. I actually felt rather angry at how Blake had brought this about and from thereon in the book lost the limited appeal it had for me as his departure left me wondering what the point of the previous pages had been.
The only character with any serious development is Frankie, but even then Blake seems to take licence with her and how an ambitious reporter would behave - taking her in one scene from the Savoy Hotel bar to a knee trembler outside with a posh bloke she's just met. Everything about this scene screams of Blake's desperation to add a little sex and it's about as erotic as a bath in treacle, never mind the fact it is completely out of character for Frankie to do this.
Frankie is supposed to be hard nosed but she seems to cry at the wrong times. She manages to see some horrific scenes in a trip she takes across Europe in 1941 (how she managed to get from London to occupied Paris by train in the midst of war isn't explained) without shedding a tear yet earlier on when Murrow first refuses to allow her to work on researching what is happening to the Jews in the occupied areas she sobs in a hideously self pity filled manner.
Other things don't make sense. Emma's husband Will only seems to have one meaningful conversation in the entire book but it's with Frankie - despite Blake's insistence that Will worships the ground Emma walks on.
Reading the conversation I didn't grasp a situation which I will presume Blake wished to create - two Americans in London during wartime who realise time is precious and therefore instantly fall into a deep and meaningful rapport as they shelter from the bombs during the Blitz. Except it doesn't ring true - it's too clichéd for words. I suppose it could have been worse of course - she could have had them engage in a knee trembler for good measure.
The book is poorly structured too. Chapters jump from one character's perspective to another's in a way that makes it hard to follow in places. Worse, the storyline is slower to move than the traffic round Hyde Park Corner in rush hour. After I was about an hour in it struck me that perhaps Blake had intended to write a film script - which would explain the constant jumping from place to place or character to character, and her desperation to build tension over a letter which loses its significance with every page you turn. It's just unfortunate that the conversations she creates between characters are so incredibly dull.
Blake's poor research also doesn't help the book - she refers to areas in London as "blocks" - a term Londoners obviously don't use. She is obsessed with calling Britain "England" and referring to its people as the English. I appreciate this is a common mistake American people make but as a Scot it's a bit grating. She refers to the "medieval spires" on Westminster Abbey, clearly failing to realise those "spires" weren't added until the 18th century. Most unforgivably perhaps is her inability to vividly paint London for me - a city I know so well.
One scene in the book is set at High Street Kensington Underground station, with Blake using this as a bomb shelter. Anyone familiar with that tube station will know it's not a deep line station and as such wouldn't offer much in the way of real protection in an air raid with the southern edges of the platforms there being exposed to the open air. Similarly when Frankie decides she finally wants to come home to America, she just ambles down to the London docks, gets a ticket and is on her way home on a liner almost immediately - which I struggled to believe - most ships travelled across the Atlantic in convoys to add safety in numbers against the German U Boats plying the ocean, and provincial ports were used instead.
Blake then takes complete historical licence with a recording machine Frankie uses to capture the words of refugees she encounters as she travels from Berlin to the border between France and Spain on trains. This journey supposedly takes place in 1941 but the machine she clearly describes wasn't invented until 1944. She cheerfully explains this away in an afterword in the book, claiming that a prototype existed in 1941 - so that's all right then.
This book was a bitter disappointment for me. What had the potential to be excellent was let down by silly plot devices, poor characterisation and Blake's inability to efficiently reach a conclusion to her book.
The ending took a good 50 pages more than was necessary, so obvious was what was coming, but Blake's desire to seemingly add to the tension must have made her oblivious to this. By the time the ending came I had stopped caring about the letter, never mind the characters.
Blake is capable of writing excellent descriptive prose - I have to say I haven't read quite as good a description of a kiss for some time - but her poor research and inability to construct characters fully and in a manner that allows the reader to get to know them enough to empathise with them is a problem.
Conversations suffered from lack of character development and apart from the one section where Frankie talked to Will I found the interaction between other characters laboured.
I do wonder if perhaps I am too pedantic for this - does it really matter that Frankie was using technology which didn't exist as she tried to record the voices of the Jews? But then I realised that for me anyway, it did matter. Blake used a confirmed moment in history and then fictionalised it with a piece of technology which made it easier for her to do her job and if it had existed at that time, might have actually helped the Jews and opened the closed American borders to them. One would have thought that hearing the voices of those refugees on the radio in America in 1941 had the potential to change history. Obviously Blake couldn't change history in a story as well known as World War 2 making the poetic licence ultimately pointless.
It made me see that that's the trouble when you play about with history - it has a habit of not going the way you might have originally intended it to.
So all in all a very disappointing read - the cover suggests some high piece of literature but what you are met with is an author who isn't half as clever as she thinks she is.
Summary: A novel which fails to deliver due to sloppy research, awful pacing and some poor characterisation