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The Postmistress Book Cover

Title:  The Postmistress

Author:  Sarah Blake

Number of Pages:  336

First Released:  February 2010

Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): “On the eve of the United States’s entrance into World War II in 1940, Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, a small town on Cape Cod, does the unthinkable: She doesn’t deliver a letter.

In London, American radio gal Frankie Bard is working with Edward R. Murrow, reporting on the Blitz. One night in a bomb shelter, she meets a doctor from Cape Cod with a letter in his pocket, a letter Frankie vows to deliver when she returns from Germany and France, where she is to record the stories of war refugees desperately trying to escape.

The residents of Franklin think the war can’t touch them- but as Frankie’s radio broadcasts air, some know that the war is indeed coming. And when Frankie arrives at their doorstep, the two stories collide in a way no one could have foreseen.”

Comments and Critique: The Postmistress has been getting a lot of attention in the book blogging community lately. Some have even been touting it as one of the best books of 2010. Because I was actually paying attention to the hype this time, I opened my copy to the first page filled with high expectations hopes that I was going to be blown away by this book. Alas, this did not come to fruition.

Set in Europe and Massachusetts in 1941, The Postmistress revolves around three women who appear as unalike as their names. Iris, as postmaster of a small Cape Cod town, is filled with her work’s purpose and walks around with common sense firmly in place. Emma, an orphan newly married to the town doctor, is delicate and preoccupied with fears about her future. Frankie, radio announcer during the Blitz in London, is as direct as can be and sees the bigger purpose in life. While they appear unalike, all three have their views which are absolutely shattered by the (impending) war.

Ms. Blake makes a compelling argument for women in a man’s world. Iris and Frankie hold jobs that were traditionally occupied by men. All three can see events unfold in completely different perspectives than their male counterparts. In addition, all three are willing to step outside the confines of their current roles. Whether this is because of their unique perspective as an outsider in their roles or if it is unique to these women, I have not yet decided. Either way, all three agonize over what they find as they ignore boundaries.

While all three women are intriguing, I find my biggest issue with the overarching novel is Emma. She spends much of the book either hiding her head in the sand about the fate of her husband or lamenting her fate. Having been in her situation, as a military spouse whose husband put himself in harms’ way (my husband voluntarily blew up bombs and other ammunition while in the Army), I can sympathize with her plight. However, because I understand that being a military spouse requires sacrifice and selflessness, especially when said spouse enjoys what s/he is doing and is proud of the difference s/he is making in the world, Emma’s behavior made me want to quit reading the novel. I found her terribly selfish and self-pitying. I would skim over the sections that focused on her because I could not take her “woe-is-me” attitude, especially when she tried to put a brave face on it towards others. Again, I have been in her shoes. It is much better for all left-behind parties to admit when you are depressed/upset/lonely, and so forth, just as it is better to show a brave face to the departing spouse. Emma did none of those things, and it made me want to throttle her.

Once I realized that my ambivalent feelings towards the novel stems from my reaction to one of the main characters, I was able to concentrate on those aspects of the book I did enjoy, of which there are many. Frankie’s experiences are truly amazing. The what-if possibilities based on those experiences are enticing, especially to someone like me who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying pre- and post-WWII Germany. Ms. Blake’s descriptions are so vivid, a reader can smell the rubber burning, hear the whine of the air raid sirens, feel the sea breezes caress his/her skin, and see the fear and despair in the faces of the refuges. I truly felt that I was a direct witness to everything that was occurring.

In the end, I am left wondering if The Postmistress lived up to the hype. To date, I still do not have a satisfactory answer. My reaction to Emma, which really did detract from loving the book, is so intensely personal and directly relates to my own experiences. Others will (and do) feel completely different about her character. I liked the book, enjoyed reading it but feel that I should love it more than I do. It was an enjoyable read with strong female leads, great glimpses into history and wonderful descriptions, but is it one of the best books in 2010? At this point in time, I have to say that it would not make it on my list.

In the spirit of discussion, for those of you who have read it, what did you like? What did you dislike? What are your thoughts of Emma?

This book counts for the 100+ Reading Challenge, the Read ‘n Review Challenge, and the Women Unbound Challenge.  Also, thank you to the publisher for sending me an advanced reading copy!

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