Tuesday, August 3, 2010

P is for...

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

I was super-excited about this novel. For one, the multi-viewpoint format and the time period made it in some ways similar to my WIP, and I wanted to see what another writer did with that skeleton. Plus, WWII is one of my favorite eras to read about, and the unique perspective--set simultaneously in a wayside Massachusetts town and overseas in London during the Blitz--resonated with my interest in feeling out what the common person was doing, where he or she felt the impact of the war.

Because Amazon did a lovely job on the sum-up, here is their blurb:

Weaving together the stories of three very different women loosely tied to each other, debut novelist Blake takes readers back and forth between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single, 40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are both new arrivals to Franklin, Mass., on Cape Cod. While Iris and Emma go about their daily lives, they follow American reporter Frankie Bard on the radio as she delivers powerful and personal accounts from the London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe. While Trask waits for the return of her husband—a volunteer doctor stationed in England—James comes across a letter with valuable information that she chooses to hide. Blake captures two different worlds—a na├»ve nation in denial and, across the ocean, a continent wracked with terror—with a willingness to take on big, complex questions, such as the merits of truth and truth-telling in wartime.

What you see in the summary is what compelled me to pick this up and keep reading--the multiple perspectives and seeing how they wove together and the overarching theme of deciding which story that ought to be told trickling into the plot. I loved that this book attempted to do more than just tell a story--it attempted to enlighten and broaden the understanding of the reader.

Blake's writing was often very beautiful, turning a phrase in deft ways that brought more insight into the book. At other times, I felt a bit steamrolled--I love subtlety, and sometimes the author would hint beautifully and then pound home. I'd be content with the hints. There were also times when I felt that the dialogue was unrealistic--when you read along and think "No, no. No one actually says those things. We only wish they would." I get that writing dialogue is not the same as writing a conversation, but there were times that I felt the dialogue was being used to further the plot in a way that was not believable.

And the story itself...well. I do say that I love what Blake attempted, but I'm not convinced she succeeded. Some plot elements felt a bit half-baked. For example, the reasons explaining why newlywed Emma's husband leaves to help in London felt mediocre to me--there needed to be something deeper than what happened, because I didn't feel the circumstances justified his actions. And once Blake dove into Frankie's story, which followed the intrepid journalist through the Blitz and into war-torn Europe, I felt that this was the story she really wanted to write. Very little happens in the way of character development or conflict for either Iris or Emma after the opening chapters, and they feel more like conduits for connecting Frankie to something else, to something larger.

What I did appreciate was that Blake was willing to dive into American attitudes about the war before our entrance, and I feel she did a great job of showing the complexity and variation of how individuals felt and reacted to what was, at the time, still a foriegn war. The American pre-war years are not explored very much, and I appreciated that Blake focused her efforts here, directing the audience to a time and place we do not encounter often.

This is a complete sidenote, but I was also a bit surprised with the way that Blake handled mid-century attitudes about sex. Emma and Iris are naiive and meek to a degree that I felt was unrealistic. The opening scene is even Iris having her virginity ascertained by a physician so that she can present that information to the man she wants to marry. Compare that with Frankie, who we see having random sex with a stranger in an alley minutes after the character is first introduced. Now, I am sure that both of these attitudes existed in America at the time, but such a wide swing felt contrived. After all, my grandmother enjoys insinuating that it was her generation that learned what back seats were for...yet I doubt many women nipped out to the alley for a good time with strange men. Just a bit that struck me as odd, but perhaps I'm overanalyzing it.

In short--I wanted more from this book than it gave me. I had high expectations and perhaps was demanding too much of a fantastic premise, but the execution fell short for me. Still, the writing was good and I'm curious to see what Blake does next.

7 comments:

Marg said...

I liked this one, and totally agree that it was Frankie's story that the author wanted to write. That section where she is in Europe was just amazing.

I was a bit surprised by the sex in the alleyway at the start too. I did think about it for a while and wondered if it was meant to represent a kind of live today because you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow kind of attitude or something.

Rowenna said...

I think you're right about the purpose of "that" scene, Marg--I guess I would have rather seen her enjoy a good snog then move on before doing anything really lewd :) Plus I had just read a bit in a nonfiction book about prostitutes in London pulling that trick at the time, so it felt extra-odd for a "decent" sort to do so.

Thanks for dropping by!

Lua said...

I was just looking at this one in my bookshop two or three weeks ago but decided not to buy it… I’m glad you wrote a review about it, now I’m feeling better about that :)
And I think I know what you mean by you felt like the author wanted to tell Frankie’s story, I get that feeling too,like that was the character the author originally wanted to write about...

sharmon2629@att.net said...

I love WWII too. I have about 300 pages of a Civil War novel (not my current WIP, which is contemporary)and should the Lord ever see fit for me to go back to it and finish (my long-held dream)I have notes to make it a trilogy (don't we all!!)and it would end in the WWII era. Fascinating time in history.
Re: sex. Sounds on the nose to me as far as divergent attitudes; it may be in how the author executed the scenes that made it ring hollow. I haven't read this novel.

Rowenna said...

Lua--I got it on loan from the library, and can't say I would purchase it, but I am glad I read it. I do think I would have liked the whole thing better if I had clicked with Frankie--nothing wrong with her, but she and I couldn't be friends in real life, if that makes sense...

Sharmon--that trilogy idea sounds awesome!

Hema P. said...

Ooh, your analytical review along with what amazon had to say has me hooked! I should check this book out.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Cat said...

Great review. I haven't read this yet but I've noticed how varied the reviews are so I'm intrigued enough to want to find out for myself .