I was sitting in the waiting room at the dentist's office last week when an elderly man asked me what I was reading. "The Postmistress," I said, adding, "It's about World War II." The man said that his wife devoured books, especially murder mysteries, then went off on a tangent about women being unfit to vote because they read only love stories. I suppose he thought The Postmistress was a romance novel, and given its title, I couldn't blame him. Not sure what else to do, I gave a little laugh. He smiled and left.
The funny thing was, Sarah Blake's book was about as far from a romance novel as you can get. It wasn't even one of those romanticized war novels about star-crossed lovers and battlefield heroics. No-nonsense, unsentimental, and jarring, it was, by its own description, a tale about "the story around the edges." Blake, who holds a PhD in Victorian literature, examines pre-Pearl Harbor America through the voices of three women: Iris James, a by-the-book New England postmistress, Frankie Bard, an intrepid war correspondent, and Emma Fitch, a vulnerable newlywed deserted by her husband. Locked in their small town world, Iris and Emma shut out the war and all its horrors, even as they listen to Frankie's stirring accounts over the airwaves. By contrast, Frankie throws herself into the fray, persuading her boss, the iconic Edward Murrow, to let her ride trains across Europe to record the voices of Jewish refugees. It's a time when few Americans know about the Holocaust, and Frankie is determined to tell them what's going on. But the things she sees shake even her conviction in the journalist's code: "Seek truth. Report it. And minimize harm," a doubt that is only deepened by her chance entanglement with the lives of Iris and Emma.
The Postmistress is a good book in the sense that it's well-written and descriptive and exposes war's gray areas. (Plus, it has discussion questions in the back, so you know it's legit.) But I didn't really enjoy reading it. It was hard to get into and, in the end, anti-climactic. While I admired Frankie's spirit and believed whole-heartedly in her cause, hers was not a journey I completely understood, perhaps because it was not one I could imagine taking. I identified more with Emma and her need to swaddle herself in safety. Which is to say that reading The Postmistress made me uneasy in the ghost of the way that listening to Frankie's broadcasts made Emma uneasy. I connected the least with Iris and was a bit puzzled that the novel was named after her. Although she does fail to deliver a letter, it's a less crucial letter than one is led to believe in that it does not definitively say anything. I know that's the point, that it is this very vagueness that helps Iris rationalize what she's doing. But as a dramatic moment or a central conflict, it fell a little flat for me, much like Iris herself.