Dear Mrs. Bird – A Lovely Read for Fall

I first heard of this book from Cirtnecce at Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses & Prejudices… She wrote so highly of Dear Mrs. Bird that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a library copy.  Three months later, it finally arrived!

It’s London in the middle of the Blitz, and twenty-something Miss Emmy Lake wants desperately to leave her dull desk job and become a War Correspondent.  Opportunities are scarce, especially for young women, so when she spies a job opening at The Evening Chronicle, she takes it, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, it turns out Emmy has agreed to become a typist for a ladies’ magazine: Woman’s Friend.  The eminent yet stringent editor, Mrs. Henrietta Bird, runs an advice column for women.  To her disappointment, Emmy has not been hired to get the scoop on the latest War developments – in fact, her job is merely to type up Mrs. Bird’s responses to readers’ questions, on topics ranging from the absurd to the tragic.

What seems like a simple task ultimately poses a moral challenge.  Emmy soon finds herself at odds with her supervisor’s dour, sometimes unkind, advice, while any topics deemed “Unpleasant” remain shredded and unanswered.  Meanwhile, developments in her personal life lead Emmy to increased empathy for the writers of “Unpleasant” letters and an overpowering eagerness to help them.

Dear Mrs. Bird is a quite a fun novel, definitely geared towards fans of Downton Abbey and other stories centered on family, friends, and communities facing change.  Being a gray-romantic, I actually preferred the plot of Dear Mrs. Bird over your typical Downton Abbey episode, because the author AJ Pearce puts the focus platonic relationships, rather than on romance like Julian Fellowes does.  (Romantics need not fear – there’s a healthy amount of it here, but it’s proportional to the story.)

For a first-person historical novel, the characters’ voices were very well written (although, I could have done without the profanity, even if it is era-accurate).  There is a ton of 40s slang, which really puts you in the time and place and is fun to read.  I felt the characterizations were also excellent – even the scary Mrs. Bird has a soft side for animals, which gives her some dimension.  I loved the friendship between Marigold “Bunty” and Emmy, and their camaraderie had me laughing out loud at times!

I had to deduct a star because the main conflict of the story (Emmy’s secret) was resolved so very predictably, and it was kinda cringy that everything turned out “fine” in spite of the fact that it really shouldn’t have.  I really dislike stories where the heroine can do whatever she wants and gets away with it…to me, your character loses integrity when that happens.  That said, I feel it’s more of a stereotype than a fatal flaw in this book, so I still leave it with 4 stars.

Would consider reading more by this author in the future!

When We Were Orphans – A Study in "Meh"

It’s London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England’s leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can’t forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher’s greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships – including his love for a lonely socialite – make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I’ve raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I’d be able to disagree with Ishiguro’s own comment, that it’s “not his best book,” ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve – in-your-face exposition – I’m afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher’s voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher’s voice, and I don’t mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I’m watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah – well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I’ll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher’s youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira – a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher’s mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It’s easy to trace the parallel between Christopher’s altruistic career choices and his mother’s campaign against the opium trade.  He’s simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories – foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it’s one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won’t divulge spoilers, but the “solution” is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session…  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he’d given it more time, and I’m puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There’s some morally questionable elements which I’ve alluded to, and if that didn’t bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won’t be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you’re new to Ishiguro’s work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.