by Sarah Blake
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. ;-)
Okay, so basically Emma comes to Franklin as the doctor’s bride. Turns out, the doctor has a tragic backstory, and he’s scared that he can’t rectify his father’s mistakes. Early in their marriage, the doctor gets called out to help with a childbirth, and the mother dies. Burdened with guilt, the doctor leaves for London where he can “do some good.” Setting aside how aggravating it is that he decides his own personal feelings are more important than his wife, it still seemed super stupid to me that he left for basically no reason. And if Emma is that attached to him, why didn’t she at least suggest going along? Then, of course, after he leaves Emma finds out that she’s pregnant, but does she mention that? No, because she’s sitting at home with hurt feelings that he left, waiting for him to surprise her by popping back home. Well GUESS WHAT HE DIES so shocking and obnoxious.
Frankie runs into the doctor in a bomb shelter, and, after they emerge in the morning, after some engaging conversation (all on the up and up, just talking about life and whatnot), Frankie sees the doctor die – he gets hit by a car. While trying to help him, she finds the last letter he wrote to Emma. Frankie forgets to mail the letter because she gets sent on a big assignment almost right away (after she sits in her apartment pondering the randomness of life and then starts her period, one clot of blood in her underpants at a time). After carrying the letter all over Europe, she takes it home and goes to Franklin with the intention of delivering the letter. Long story short, Emma still doesn’t know the doctor is dead (although she obviously suspects since his letters have stopped), and Frankie can’t bear to be the one who breaks the news. Even after Emma finds out, Frankie never delivers the letter because she doesn’t want Emma to know that she knew.
Frankie, who writes the introduction and conclusion in the first person, says at the end of the book –
I carried the doctor’s letter from London, across Europe, back home, and up to the door of the woman to whom it was addressed. I knocked and she answered and I looked at her and did not speak. I carried it but I never let it go. It lies unopened here on my desk.
And it just really, really annoys me that Frankie kept that letter. Even though I, as the reader, know that what the doctor wrote was something completely inane and not particularly touching, it doesn’t matter. Frankie stole that letter from Emma, the last words that her husband ever wrote to her, basically just because she felt like it. She didn’t haven’t to deliver it herself – she could have mailed it and everyone would have assumed it had been lost in transit or something.
And really, it was weird little things like that that really turned me off this book. The doctor dies. Frankie keeps the letter. Then, Harry dies of a heart attack for no reason. In the end, there are just three depressed women hanging out being depressed. But I guess that’s kind of what a novels are all about.