Thursday, December 23, 2021

A. J. Pearce - Dear Mrs Bird

London, 1941. Amid the falling bombs Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a fearless Lady War Correspondent. Unfortunately, Emmy instead finds herself employed as a typist for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt at Woman’s Friend magazine. Mrs Bird refuses to read, let alone answer, letters containing any form of Unpleasantness, and definitely not those from the lovelorn, grief-stricken or morally conflicted. But the thought of these desperate women waiting for an answer at this most desperate of times becomes impossible for Emmy to ignore. She decides she simply must help and secretly starts to write back – after all, what harm could that possibly do?

Comment: I got interested in this book in 2019, probably because I've read some positive recommendation for it regarding books in best of lists from 2018 publishing. I especially liked the idea of someone replying advice to people sending letters to magazines, which still happens nowadays but not with the same magnitude as it certainly was before internet and mobile phones.

In this book, set in 1940, while the war was raging in Europe, British young lady Emmeline decides to answer a job offer to work for a newspaper, thinking she would climb the ladder to become a reporter of war, one of the first women to do so. However, her hopes are dashed when she learns the ad was for the newspaper company but the actual job is at one of the company's magazines for women, which limits the subjects severely. Emma is to work for mrs Bird, the matron who gives advice but only to certain types of themes and, Emma soon realizes, there are more subjects she doesn't reply to than the ones she does. After some time, Emma is used to things and she takes a chance on replying to a letter herself, since mrs Bird rarely stays in and seemingly doesn't read the magazine after it's printed. But what will happen if Emma is caught?

I loved the idea of this book. I have a tendency to appreciate epistolary novels and I assumed this would be one of them, and by replying to letters, Emma would have interesting experiences, perhaps even exchange letters with a potential suitor... immediately came to mind similar books/plots and I created this idea in my head of how this might go, but unfortunately for me, that wasn't how the author decided to carry things along.

Emma works for the magazine and she replies to letters, yes, but in secret and the letters are of women, usually with worries because of relationships or the war or emotional issues, subjects that mrs Bird doesn't reply to, because it's not morally accepted, and she labels them even "unacceptable". This frustrates Emma, for she feels sympathy towards those who take the chance to ask questions in a public forum and they wouldn't if the answer was that easy. Emma feels mrs Bird could do a lot more to help these women and that is what propels her to start what can be seen as wrong and unethical.

At the same time Emma is dealing with these dilemmas, war keeps on going and London keeps being attacked which is another issue to worry about, for Emma volunteers as dispatcher for firemen and she has many friends among those who risk their lives. She also had a boyfriend who dumps her, adding to her sense of loss and the need to do something more to help. I could see how all these things would weight in on Emma, and she is the (first person) narrator, which means we have ample chance to commiserate and empathize with her point of view but, for me, this didn't really happen and I could read without feeling too emotional about it. I suppose the story could have been done with a steadier/stronger emotional impact...

The development of the plot regarding the letters Emma replies to pretending to be mrs Bird is also a little weak. It's quite predictable how this ends up in quite a mess when Emma is found out, and to make everything more difficult, by then she and her best friend are at odds after a terrible moment in the follow up of an attack. I can't explain if it bothers me that there was too much happening and my attention  - and that of the plot - was away from the letters and the magazine as I would have preferred, or that the author didn't develop none of the sub-themes, let's call them that, as well as she could, making the whole story feel simple and at times a little disjointed.

While all this is ongoing, Emma starts exchanging letters with one of her bosses' younger brother, whom she randomly meets one time while out with hr best friend. Although they spend only a small amount of time together we are led to believe they will fall/are falling in love but nothing too definitive is shared with the reader. Then, after some problems and their solutions are dealt with, the end of the story arrives and I don't think it had enough closure. Since there is a sequel, ore on this might be addressed there, but I don't feel tempted enough to discover.

All in all, this story has many interesting elements, ideas and scenes but the big picture isn't as engaging as I would have liked and, to be honest, some parts were a little boring to read. I also felt the letter replying at the magazine didn't have the focus it should, to make it a more vibrant element. This was good enough to entertain but I don't feel seduced to re-read or read the next one.
Grade: 6/10

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