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by Bethanne Patrick, AARP The Magazine, April 30, 2010
G.P. Putnam's Sons
The Postmistress, Sarah Blake's ambitious second novel, probes the very nature of narrative: How is a story shaped, and when? Who gets to tell it? And what if a story has no definite or easy ending?
Does that sound highfalutin? Maybe—but Blake makes it work, even when parts of her beautifully written book meander more than the Cape Cod dunes against which much of the tale unfolds.
The novelist focuses on three main characters: Iris James, the newly appointed postmistress of tiny, seaside Franklin, Massachusetts; Emma Fitch, who has recently married Franklin's resident physician, Will Fitch; and newswoman Frankie Bard, an American radio journalist just assigned to work in London for Edward R. Murrow on the eve of World War II.
Blake takes her sweet time setting up the novel's denouement, which will unite all three characters for the first time. She focuses first on Iris's calm, crisp command of the town's post office and her quietly burgeoning romance with Harry Vale, Franklin's sole car mechanic.
Next Blake widens her net to describe the Fitches: Emma and Will, a man whose disappointment in his father—and in himself—threatens his new, tender marriage. Traumatized by losing a patient during a difficult childbirth, Will flees Franklin for war-torn London. "Sweetheart, there are people over there who need help," he tries explaining his decision to Emma, "who need another pair of hands, and I can bring them. When we know there are people in need,… we cannot look away.… Human beings do not look away."
This being a novel, we can perhaps excuse the coincidence that Will has been alerted to London's darkest hour by "that radio gal," Frankie Bard. Her beauty and her ambition evoke those of real-life journalist Mary Marvin Breckinridge, whom Murrow hired over the protests of CBS brass—and who made 50 broadcasts from seven European countries between the fall of 1939 and the spring of 1940.
Frankie will get involved in the world of Franklin thanks to a letter that Will writes home to his wife. Communications by post are one of two mid-century technologies that serve as story engines in The Postmistress. Blake likewise highlights radio broadcasts, with Frankie's news bulletins from an unraveling Europe simultaneously riveting and repulsing the citizens of Franklin (both Emma and Iris are shown listening to them).
The story's irksome laxity begins to make sense after it becomes clear that the brief encounter between Will Fitch and Frankie Bard during a nighttime bombing has more to do with Blake's theme about stories than with reader expectations of a storybook wartime romance. (In another choreographed coincidence, the two meet by chance when they seek refuge in the same London bomb shelter during the Blitz.)
Meeting Will—and learning that his safe return from London is imperiled—rattles Frankie to her core, but it is her friendship with fellow journalist Harriet Mendelsohn that sets her on the soul-searing path she will follow in the book's second half. Mendelsohn had "parsed scraps and lines of Nazi policy otherwise buried in large speeches, to tell that story [of genocide], though it beggared belief." After Mendelsohn is killed by a Luftwaffe bomb, Frankie informs Murrow she wants to take on Harriet's story.
Murrow supplies Frankie with a heavy, bulky recording device and sends her into the heart of Europe. Riding trains packed with panicked refugees, Frankie speaks to those people in whatever languages they all can share, sometimes recording words no one else on the train understands.
Sarah Blake's real game, it turns out, is to challenge readers to think about which stories endure, and why—how one person can hear words that no one else understands and bring those sentences to bear on the story of many. She underscores her intention with a curious subplot about Harry the mechanic, whose real-life counterparts in the Civil Defense service that conducted U-boat watches on Cape Cod are an oft-eclipsed aspect of World War II lore.
To Iris, Harry's story is more vital than anything happening in Europe. To Emma, holding on to a story is more important than real life. And to every character in the book, any particular story hinges heavily on its context. Perhaps that is why Sarah Blake arranges for an aging Frankie Bard to bookend her novel. The author lets us in on some secrets in the final pages, where she permits Frankie to address the reader directly:
"A story like a snapshot is caught, held for a moment, then delivered. But the people in it go on and on. And what happens next? What happens?
The story knew."
Sarah Blake knows, too—and The Postmistress is her poignant way of showing us.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance book reviewer and host of "The Book Studio" for WETA-PBS.
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