Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Postmistress: Reviewing the Reviews

The library's Second Tuesday of the Month book group discussed Sarah Blake's The Postmistress this week. Everyone liked the book, but... .  It's that "I liked it, but..." that makes this book interesting to review and to discuss. Briefly, The Postmistress tells the tale of three American women in the period before the United States joined WWII. Against that isolationist backdrop,  radio reporter Frankie Bard broadcasts from the London studios of Edward R. Murrow during the Blitz. In a small town on Cape Cod, USA, doctor's wife Emma Fitch and village postmaster Iris James are the other two points of this literary triangle. Their lives become entwined through the plot device of letters not delivered.
Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times starts off snarkily but ends up praising the book while delivering some body blows to the author's style: a mixed review for a book that seems to elicit that response.
Maslin writes, "Is there any hope for a novel that begins as “The Postmistress” does?” In the fall of 1940 a 40-year-old spinster named Iris James goes to visit a Boston doctor. She wants a written document attesting that she is, as the book says, “intact.”"
USA Today's reviewer Carol Memmott loves the book pretty much unreservedly calling it "splendid" and comparing it, as many reviewers do, to The Guernesy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, another book club favorite set during WWII and purely epistolary in nature. Both Maslin and Memmott and many reviewers also make the comparison to Kathryn Stockett's The Help.
Many non-professional blog reviewers (like moi) admit to mixed feelings about the book. The Literate Housewife writes,
"The Postmistress and I got off to a bumpy start," but then goes on to say that she liked the part of the novel about the war reporter best.
The library book group members also found the beginning of the book off-putting, and found Frankie Bard to be the most interesting character and her storyline to be the best.  
The Postmistress is a good choice for a book group because it has lots of discussable themes: the role of fate in life and death and war being the main one. Does life "all add up" as the doctor who goes to help out in the Blitz believe? Or is death merely a result of random chance as Frankie Bard says? Or, as we pondered and debated on Tuesday night, is it more the confluence of conscious choices with random fate?

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