The lives of three women converge in the months leading up to the US's entry into World War II.
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In her professional life, however, Iris is ahead of her time – to the point where the gossips cackle that a man should have been given her job. And she takes her position seriously, watching over her town and all the varied pieces of their lives that slide through her capable fingers. Then there’s Emma Fitch, professional child-woman and the doctor’s new wife. Emma is a dishrag of the first water. She felt invisible before she married. “For the first time in her life, with Will, she had come to see herself because she’d look down and see herself – her waist, her arms, the bone on her wrist – in his hands. Because he’d been watching her. Like a fairy kissed into being, or the mermaid suddenly walking....” If the old “male gaze” saw isn’t enough, Emma demonstrates all the backbone of a paramecium.Skip to next paragraph
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When her husband volunteers to help during the Blitz, Emma doesn’t either (a) support him, or (b) tell him she’s pregnant, so he understands why she doesn’t want him to leave. Instead, she sends whiny missives and then talks about how tired she is of being brave and putting on a good front. I wondered if I had perhaps skipped a page.
Far more active is Frankie Bard, intrepid girl reporter, whose recklessness is matched only by her naiveté. (She escapes the bomb that kills her roommate because she’s having anonymous sex in an alley.) I kept wishing that Cary Grant would show up and call her a “doll-faced hick.” Sadly, nobody in “The Postmistress” is very witty, and so Frankie’s nickname among her fellow reporters is Beauty. (Where is Rosalind Russell when you need her?)
Blake does a good job of capturing small-town nastiness and Americans’ stolid desire to avoid another war at all costs. Less believable is the idea that “There were things being broken we had no American names for. There was war. What did it mean, War?” World War I was just 22 years before, so plenty of people would have been familiar with the concept.
Frankie’s frantic desire to get the story out, and her growing anguish about her country’s indifference and the unintended consequences of her reporting, however, help lift “The Postmistress” above the bland. Blake includes some nice details about radio correspondents’ roles during World War II. Take the London studio over which Murrow presides, “not much bigger than a closet, equipped with a battered table and chair and a single light shining on the microphone set in the middle of the table, heavy and blunt as a murder weapon....” And there’s a great bit where Frankie, ostensibly lauding the composer Ludwig von Beethoven, sneaks the Morse code “V” for victory past a German censor.
Iris may be the titular character, but readers learn remarkably little about her. Instead, the novel’s strengths rest on the shoulders of Frankie Bard, Radio Gal.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.