The Postmistress

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by Sarah Blake

published 2010

So I picked this up for a quarter at the library booksale.  I wavered, because it does say a novel on the front, and I’m discovering more and more that a novels are just not for me.

The language in The Postmistress was beautiful.  However, the story was an incredible downer – nobody ended up happy, and we are left with a very hopeless perspective on life.

The story focuses on several different people.  One group lives in a small town, Franklin, on the “arm” of Massachusetts.  This group includes Iris, the postmistress.  Middle-aged and single, Iris lives a peaceful life, viewing herself as a small but critical part of the United States Government: her job as a postmistress is sacred to her.  Iris is falling in love with the town mechanic, Harry.  We also meet Emma, the bride of the town’s doctor.

Meanwhile, in England, a war is on.  Frankie, an American, is living in London and reporting, via radio, about the Blitz.  She loves her work, and Blake ties together her two locations frequently through Frankie’s stories, as the people in Franklin listen to what Frankie is reporting.  (Frankie and Franklin…  ha, just noticed that!)

Like I said, some of the language is beautiful.  The descriptions of London life during this tumultuous and terrifying time are wonderful –

A draft of night air hit her, and the sounds of bombs falling now, further along to the west.  A thick gust of smoke crossed as the wind shifted off the river carrying the stink of the explosions.  …  There was no veil, no protective curtain where it happened out of sight, “over there.”  This was the shock.  This had always been the shock, and it seemed to Frankie the most important thing for people to know.  Over here, there was nothing between you and the war.  …  That was it, wasn’t it?  The nothing between.  That scant air between the couple kissing this evening: their bodies leaning against each other before going underground was the same air between the gunners and the bombs, and it was the same air that carried her voice across the sea, on sound waves, to people listening in their chairs at home.

Or this bit –

One day someone you saw every day was there and the next he was not.  This was the only way Frankie had found to report the Blitz.  The small policeman on the corner, the grocer with the bad eye, the people you walked to work with, in the shops, on the bus: the people you didn’t know but who walked the same route as you, who wove the anonymous fabric of your life.  Buildings, gardens, the roofline, one could describe their absence.  But for the disappearance of a man, or a little boy, or the woman who used to wait for the bus at the same time as she did, Frankie had found few words:  Once they were here.  And I saw them.

As the stories unwind, the characters are woven together.  Through various circumstances, Frankie meets Franklin’s doctor in London.  Later, after she’s traveled through occupied France and part of Germany, Frankie returns to the States, and finds herself drawn to Franklin.  Because it is a novel, though, no one is allowed a happy ending.  People die (just to prove that people died), and Frankie never finds the answers for which she was searching.

Also, because it is a novel, we have to have at least a couple of random sex scenes – and, for me, details of someone losing their virginity is really just not all that interesting, you know?  And ditto for the shagging of a random stranger up against a wall outside the bar.  I mean, really?  So unnecessary.

And finally, as a novel, we have to have at least a bit of time devoted to a woman being on her period, because apparently it’s important to emphasize that women have menstrual cycles now.

(Keep in mind that this is literally out of nowhere.  The paragraph before, Frankie is just hanging out, thinking about life.)

A clot of blood released into her underpants.  Then another.  Christ.  She shimmied the three steps over to her bureau, holding her hand between her legs so nothing dripped onto the landlady’s carpet.  She reached and found a Kotex and a pair of clean underwear and fastened the one to the sanitary belt around her waist, pulled the other up, and tossed the soiled underwear on top of the blouse already soaking in the tiny sink by the door.

?!?!??!?!?!  The end.  No purpose whatsoever.  I do not understand this trend of talking about menstrual cycles.  Why….????  You know, it’s one of those things that I have to think about enough in real life, really not interested in reading about it in my fiction.  Sheesh.

But you know, I could have gotten past all that, even gotten past the fact that the first chapter is all about Iris going to the doctor in Boston so she can get a “certificate” stating that she is still a virgin so whenever Harry gets around to shagging her, she’ll be able to prove that he’s the first (!?!?!?!?), if there had been even the slightest glimmer of hope at the end of this story.  But there wasn’t.  Like most a novels, this one ended bleakly – “We can’t change what’s coming.  Something is always coming.”

I think that part of Blake’s point is that tragic things happen all over the world, but we only care about the things that touch us.  The implication, of course, is that this is wrong.  Frankie felt passionately that the States should have been involved in the war long before they were, hence her desire to tell the everyday stories in an attempt to tell the people home how everyday life in Europe was terrifying.  But as somewhat of an isolationist, I’m not sure that I agree with a lot of what Frankie has to say, or with a lot of Blake’s attempted parallels to the modern world.

If you enjoy a novels, you will probably like this book.  It is written well, and the story is engaging.  Personally, though, I really like something with at least a glimmer of hope.

ALSO something else really torqued me off about this book, but involves major spoilers, so I’ll put the minirant below the break.  ;-)

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The Moving Finger

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by Agatha Christie

published 1942

Even though it’s been a while since I’ve read them, I have this vague feeling that I really didn’t like the Miss Marple books as well as some of Christie’s others.  And I’m not sure whether or not it’s Miss Marple herself, or the fact that more books with her as the main character were written later in Christie’s career – I find myself trending towards her 1920’s and 30’s books myself.

At any rate, The Moving Finger was not one of my favorites, mainly because Miss Marple isn’t really a part of the story.  The story is about a young man named Jerry, who is recovering from a long illness by leasing a house in a small village.  With his sister to keep house for him, Jerry settles in for what he assumes will be a quiet life.  However, it isn’t long before he and his sister receive an anonymous “poison pen” letter.  Jerry finds out that several – that is to say, most – villagers have been receiving these letters.  While uncomfortable, the letters don’t seem dangerous – until a woman commits suicide after receiving one.

This is not a bad story, but it’s not a great one, either.  The characters are a bit flat, and both Jerry and Joanna’s love stories feel a bit contrived (and a bit out of place as they don’t move the story forward much).  Miss Marple pops in at the end, magically knows all the answers, and wraps everything up.  I much prefer going along with the person who knows the answers in the end.  Because Miss Marple wasn’t really a part of the story (it isn’t even her village!), it felt odd to have her be the person who pulls it all together.  In my opinion, this story would have worked better without her – as a stand alone with Jerry as the amateur detective, perhaps.

Still, a fine if not stunning addition to the Marple tales.