marginalia || The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

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):

* * *

# 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.

* * *

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?

19 thoughts on “marginalia || The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

  1. I love these posts when you lift from your journal. And I like this backhanded good review, lol. This book kept getting raves and I’ve been wondering “Surely something’s wrong, even a little bit?”

    Thanks for the dissenting voice, though I’m sure you didn’t dissent for the heck of it. :-)

    1. Thanks, Piper — I’ve been thinking of a blog revamp whose posts are made up of these “lifting-from-the-journal” bits. It’s going to be a radically different blog, I think, given that it’s more selfish and more navel-gazing-ish. But, well, the blog’s a reading journal. It was supposed to be a copy of my actual notebook, but, haha, I get distracted. Whatever, still brainstorming. :)

      And, thanks again: A lot of people love this book, and although I wasn’t deliberately trying to be contrary, I just had to put it out there that some books aren’t for everyone. Like I said above, it’s a good book, but it’s not my absolute OMG Read of the Year.

      1. Hurray for “feeble compliments” then! :-) I appreciate that you pointed out the good parts as well as the parts that didn’t work for you. Or your non-good feeling about the book in general. “Meh” is the theme of the day.

        And it’s always up to you how your blog should go. A lot of us would still be here. Playing voyeur to your reading, lol.

        1. Man, that “Meh” feeling when reading the book? Hate that, haha. Too bad that for the past couple of days, the books I’ve been reading were mostly Meh–even when I really really really wanted to like them, hahaha.

  2. I read this one for work a few months back and agree that it’s not really a life changing book, but it is beautifully written and has some very provocative scenes. I did find it a tad confused at times, but overall, I thought it was a strong novel. It may have been somewhat manipulative, but I think I would forgive it that because I thought the writing was good and much of the string pulling was well masked (in my opinion, at least).

    Are there better books out there? Of course! But I didn’t regret the time I spent on this one, so that’s something!

    1. Yes, manipulative is the word I’m looking for. :) I could get past that while I was reading it, but days later, upon reflection, it prevented me from completely loving the book. It’s a tame liking, my feelings toward The Postmistress right now. There were a lot of good scenes–I’m partial to the one that ended the 1940s part of the novel–and yes, I don’t regret the couple of hours I spent reading this book.

      I don’t know where Sarah Blake goes from here though. I hope it’s something completely different. And not too conscious of pleasing people. :]

  3. I haven’t read The Postmistress yet either, but I’m glad to know you enjoyed it. I really like seeing the excerpts from your reading journal too. It’s nice to see how perceptions of a book can change while you read it.

    1. Since I scribble as I read–with a couple of lines of afterthoughts–it’s almost a by-page/chapter/scene look into my reactions. Sometimes I’d go “OMG, what just happened?” even though, say, three pages ago I’d be raving like mad about the book. :)

  4. I haven’t read this or added it to my TBR because it didn’t seem like the kind of book worth making an effort to seek out. I enjoy this kind of book now and then, but usually my enjoyment is while I’m reading, when I’m too absorbed in the story to think about it. But I’d rather read a book where it doesn’t feel like the author is trying to pull my heartstrings. That said, if I happen upon this at the library when I’m in the mood for something “nice,” I’d give it a try.

    1. I mean, it’s still a good book [a majority of the blogosphere said so, haha], despite my own suspicions that it’s Hallmarkish-manipulative. True, though: when this book just falls on to your lap, and when you’re in the mood for something “nice.” [Maybe it’s a “circumstantial” book that way?]

  5. The Help is the only Einhorn book I’ve read…but I must admit I’m kinda weary of the imprint on a whole. I loved The Help…and then it BLEW UP. And I’m not just saying that in a “I liked it before it was popular” way…I mean I got the ARC last March from my library friend who recommended it to me bc we like Southern fiction and none of the books she ever recommends to me are bestsellers. So I was surprised at its eventual popularity.

    But now I think all Einhorn books are expected to be the same…like “ooh this is fabulous AND has literary merit!” Like it’s a seal of approval. And this whole Amy Einhorn Challenge I’m reading about in the blogosphere…I feel like no one is every going to criticize or dislike an Einhorn book because they’re SUPPOSED to be great and inspiring.

    So, “contrived”…I get that.

    1. The ARC of this book came with one of those intro-to-the-imprint letters. I was really turned off by the glowing declaration [of Amy Einhorn], about that so-called “sweet spot” that straddled commercial and literary fiction. I’d thought–and still do–that it was such a contrived aim for a publisher, such a set-up for the author. How does one even straddle the commercial and the literary? My beef with this–and that feeling that I was being emotionally blackmailed (haha)–really made an impact in my reflection of the reading experience I had with The Postmistress. I mean, I didn’t not like it because of the imprint’s aim–but that pervading feeling that, yeah, I was being manipulated somewhat. It was a nice book. But, but, but… yeah. [I probably won’t be getting any more ARCs from Amy Einhorn then, huh?]

      With the Einhorn Challenge, well, I hope there’s some dissent milling around there. But then, there’s a lot of love for the imprint online, and it’s these bloggers who’ve mostly embarked on the challenge. What can you do, right?

      Also, I have to admit that I’m kind of glad that I’m not the only one who thinks all this.


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