It’s 1940. Frankie Bard is an American radio reporter working in London for CBS, broadcasting news on the Blitz into American homes. Frankie is right in the heart of the action, spending her nights sheltering from the bombs and her days reporting on homes that have been destroyed, families torn apart and children left orphaned.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, we see the effects the war is having on the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts. In Franklin, we meet the postmistress (or actually, postmaster, as she prefers to be called): Iris James, a middle-aged single woman. And we also meet Emma Fitch, the doctor’s wife. When Emma’s husband travels to London to offer his medical skills to the war effort, it sets a chain of events in motion which will affect the lives of all three women.
I seem to have been reading a lot of books about World War II recently – books written during the war, set during the war and about the aftermath of the war. The Postmistress is a book I’ve had my eye on for a while and I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be one of the better WWII books I’ve read. In fact, it’s probably the most disappointing book I’ve read so far this year and I very nearly gave up on it after a few chapters. Although the writing was very elegant, it felt impersonal somehow and scenes that I’m sure should have made me cry left me unmoved.
The biggest problem I had was that I didn’t feel a real connection to any of the characters. The only one who came alive for me at all was Frankie Bard. I thought the book lacked focus and might have worked better if it had concentrated more on one central character. As it was, I’m not sure The Postmistress was the best title for this book. It implies that the postmistress (i.e. Iris) would be the main focal point of the book, which she wasn’t – this was really Frankie’s story in my opinion – and although Iris does play an important part in the plot, her character’s potential was never fully explored. As for the third main female character, Emma, she seemed very two-dimensional and I never felt that I got to know her at all.
It’s not all bad, though: there were some things that I did like about this book. I enjoyed the section where Frankie was sent to report on the refugee trains departing from Berlin and to attempt to interview some of the Jewish families who were leaving the city. I’m sure she wouldn’t really have found it quite so easy to travel by ferry from England to France in the middle of the war and then to catch a train to Berlin, though! Despite this and a few other inaccuracies (in the author’s note, for example, Sarah Blake admits that the recording equipment Frankie was carrying hadn’t been invented until 1944), I thought this was easily the most compelling part of the novel. This was around 150 pages into the book and was the first time I’d found myself becoming absorbed in the story, which made me glad I hadn’t abandoned it. Sadly though it didn’t continue to hold my attention and I quickly started to lose interest again when the focus returned to Iris and Emma.
I did find it interesting to read about the various ways in which the war was affecting the lives of people in Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from the fighting. We see people worrying about loved ones in Europe, people feeling frightened and expecting a German U-boat to land at any minute, people tuning into the radio every day to hear the latest news and wishing there was some way they could help. Most of the WWII books I’ve read have been from a European perspective so this was something different and I really liked that aspect of the book.
The Postmistress didn’t work for me personally, but I’ve seen a lot of reviews that are much more positive than mine, so clearly other readers have been able to connect with the characters and the story better than I have. I do however think it would make a good book group choice, as it raises some issues which would be perfect for a discussion, such as the importance of truth and whether the truth should always be told – and what happens to the people we hear about on the news after the reporter stops speaking and the radio is turned off.