I approached The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, this nearly universally loved book, with some trepidation. What if it was all hype? What if I loathed it? What if it was a Bad Book? [I think of Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, which I ripped a new one.]
But I, being neurotic, eventually I liked it a lot by the time I’d replaced it on my shelf. It didn’t alter my world radically, mind you–but it was the center of my existence while I was reading it (up all night, because I don’t have enough sense to realize that the night will bleed out into the next day, and whatever book I’d started would still be there.) Yes, it’s a nice book, and yes, it had particularly well-conceived (well-contrived) scenes, and yes, sometimes the characters flew off the page with so much passion (like Frankie Bard) that I wanted to stuff them back into the binding.
But it’s a nice book. (A feeble a compliment as any.)
When one of the characters, upon listening to a broadcast of our intrepid Frankie Bard, reflects that Frankie had “redefined the nature of the hero”–I thought, Ha–that’s one of the thesis statements right there!
However. Although The Postmistress is a beautiful book, it knew it was a good book. It knew it would touch hearts, and cause some to reach for their hankies. Although I’d distrusted it for the hype (and shouldn’t everyone be wary of hype?), I eventually came to distrust it for its nature. (What?) I’ll get to that.
This is what I wrote in my notebook, reproduced here verbatim (no spoilers, I think, as I was mostly talking to myself here):
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# 51 [of 2010] • THE POSTMISTRESS
→ a novel by SARAH BLAKE
Writers. They are not to be trusted with our hearts.
It’s the early 1940s and no knows how the carnage in Europe will end. War is vague–it’s not on America’s shores, and at most it is a narrative/report on the radio. One of the narrators–letting the clueless “pay attention”–is Frankie Bird, woman reporter extraordinaire, who manages to inject the page with a chafing idealism that points to her actual cynicism. And vice versa. There is also Iris, the postmistress, and Emma, the fragile doctor’s wife.
See how they eventually intertwine: Iris waiting for a bus [the bus ex machina that leads us to a lot of the characters], showing us how she is a mix of straightforward and unsure, seeing Emma, thinking:
… she was the sort who needed tending, the small-breasted women who tip their faces up to men, smiling delightedly as babies.
[I, of course, completely agree. Explore the faint, almost instincive distaste women my height with which they look upon “normal” tiny girls.] And then Emma sees Iris and thinks:
Probably a spinster; the pathetic type who reads passion into the twist of a shut umbrella.
[Dear Emma, that is rather close-minded of you to think that there is no passion in the twist of a shut umbrella.] And then later on Frankie Bard is on the radio, and it’s so compelling and all that–and I agree with Iris when she observes that Frankie has a touch of arrogance in her, what with being able to witness important things.
Much of the introduction to characters happen this way, a changing of perspectives within the same room, over continents, at the slightest connection. It’s so contrived, how Blake uses the characters as segues to other characters. Feels like this was written in mind for a movie version. Oh, Sasha, you and your black heart.
◊ Bah. I am at the cusp of the 6th chapter, and this book is starting to get meh. I’m bored and occasionally rolling my eyes. The book and its agendas. So conscious of its goodness, of its aim to show a new dimension to the war, through oh-so-complex heroines. Please.
◊ After a day or two. I just started it again. Two chapters flew by and they were good. Not incredibly good, not Oh my god I can’t believe I ever put you down good. But good enough. Hopes reinstilled! — EEK. Then again, why? Characters are doing things that don’t make sense? Grief never makes sense, and it shouldn’t–but come on now. I do like how a lot of these people are selfish. Yes, in a novel that touts goodness, I am beginning to feel an affinity for the selfish ones.
There was no shape for details like that. Shape was the novelist’s lie.
◊ Frankie’s depiction of the war. Her journeys. This really is getting all Hallmark on me. But it’s a good book, there’s no denying that. I just wish it wasn’t so conscious about it, augh. Anyway, loved this quote about the war in Europe:
You went to bed ready to run.
◊ Jesus, did I just read that vague-and-lofty subgenre, Women’s Fiction? Holla. Anyway. Just finished reading it. Beautiful book, I suppose. Too many senseless deaths though–and I’m not even talking about the war. People in this story died without need, without the narrative demanding it. Was I supposed to cry? Anyway, that last scene in the 1940s narrative made the entire book worth it.
Still. Hallmarky–but not less human. Also, as much as the characters are remarkably drawn, this is a book about the story. The story knows, to paraphrase Frankie Bard. This about people, yes, but this is mostly about the senselessness of order, and chance, and accidents.
Some stories don’t get told. Some stories you hold on to. To stand and watch and hold it in your arms was not cowardice. To look straight at the beast and feel its breath on your flanks and not to turn–one could carry the world that way.
Final verdict? I liked it. It was a pleasant experience. I just wish I felt more.
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Ah, the mehcommendation (with credits to Steph for coining that word)–even though it verged on the saccharine, that it was predictably good, it knew all the buttons to push, it listed to the verge of Hallmark saccharine. It was a Lifestyle channel special.
You may have figured out by now that this is a backhanded good review. Hell, I know this post is as untraditional a review as they come–I just felt too listless to tackle this book: it wasn’t that big of a blip in my reading experience. It was nice.
I’ve had a couple of days to sit on my impressions on the novel. Going back to the reading Moley pages that accompanied my reading, I see evidence of my dissatisfaction. Yes: it made me breathless in many parts, it had me scramble to get my pen to scribble a well-earned purple star beside a passage. Is it the most beautiful book I’d read? No. Is it one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in the three months that make up this year? Not even.
But it was beautiful. It was good. I liked it well enough. But that’s it. It was enough. It was mediocre. I just didn’t feel as much as the book wanted me to feel.
PS : Oh, Amy Einhorn, did you really have to inform us that you sought to publish books that would “hit that sweet spot” between literary fiction and commercial fiction? Isn’t that too, I dunno, too contrived?