REVIEW: Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce
An irresistible debut set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist— a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.
London, 1940. Emmeline Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent suddenly seem achievable. But the job turns out to be working as a typist for the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.
Mrs. Bird is very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant notes from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.
Prepare to fall head over heels for Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are gutsy and spirited, even in the face of a terrible blow. The irrepressible Emmy keeps writing letters in this hilarious and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Dear Ms. Pearce,
Yes, I am aware of the irony of our site beginning our reviews in a way that mimics the title of this book but with this book, I look at it as delicious irony and smiled as I got started. In the past few years, I’ve read a lot of recently written books set in the UK during World War II featuring the home front. After a while they have begun to echo each other. Something about the blurb for this one still called out to me and I was thrilled to bits to get a crack at reviewing it. Almost immediately, I knew this one would be Different and Worthwhile.
Emmy Lake and her best friend from childhood Bunty Tavistock are young and in London Doing Their Bit for the war effort. Bunty works at the War Office typing hush, hush things but Emmy is employed by a solicitor while volunteering for some night shifts with the AFS who are being Kept Rather Busy by the Luftwaffe during the nighttime bombing raids. Then one day, Emmy reads an advert for a Junior to work for a newspaper. Having always dreamed of a career in journalism, this seems her chance to get her foot in the door and kick start her brilliant future as a Lady War Correspondent.
Only the reality is quite different from her starry eyed daydreams and she finds herself working for one of those Formidable British Women who are all tweeds, brogues and no nonsense. Mrs. Bird will not deign to reply to any letter dealing with (a long list of) Unpleasant Topics and those which she does accept get Rather Stern replies to buck up, join the Girl Guides or get on with it. Mrs. Henrietta Bird has no time or inclination to Coddle.
With the best of intentions, Emmy then makes a hash of trying to help the poor souls who, desperate for advice during these topsy turvy times, write in with issues that tug at Emmy’s heart. Soon she’s risking her job, a budding romance and the friendship of Bunty who strongly disapproves of what Emmy is doing but nonetheless still stands a loyal friend. But when disaster strikes on several fronts, will Emmy be able to salvage the mess she’s made?
I Adore Emmy and couldn’t help but see her as Honeysuckle Weeks in “Foyle’s War” – all earnest enthusiasm with a touch of naiveté in the face of her elders. Does Emmy do what She Shouldn’t Do? Yes. Does she exasperate her best friend and cause a rift with Bunty? Again yes. But Emmy’s motives are pure and as she sees it, this is a way for her to help on the home front as the nation grapples with nightly destruction, evacuations, loss of loved ones and fear for those bravely fighting. If she can gently try and give friendly advice to those who have no where else to turn during this social upheaval which will assist them in Keeping Calm and Carrying On with the war effort, then she’ll do it.
The first half of the book is delightfully funny even during blackouts, bombing raids, the efforts of the Auxiliary Fire Service to rescue those in blasted buildings and keep London from going up in flames. The stiff upper lips and “keep at it” attitudes without that most abhorred of all things – Making a Fuss – are a bracing reminder of how things were.
The problems that drive the letters that call to Emmy to Do Something range from silly – my husband doesn’t want me to cut my hair as he admires Dorothy Lamour – to heartbreaking. Emmy’s nascent romance with an Army Captain charmed my stockings off. Her day-to-day work at the magazine with the starchily hilarious but deeply caring Mr. Collins is a joy. Mrs. Bird – well brave men quaver in fear of that lady.
I knew eventually things would catch up with Emmy and when they did, the story moved into a deeper layer of emotion. Emmy does some growing up and soul searching as she grapples with continuing her letter replies and faces a tragedy. Emmy might not always make the best choices but she stays herself and acts true to character. Even as things go pear shaped, I couldn’t have seen her doing any differently. I would have liked to have seen, and was surprised that I didn’t, her parents and brother weighing in during the Last Bit of Unpleasantness. Also the book ends on a positive note but with unresolved issues. Perhaps that means a there will be more adventures in a second book for Emmy and the others? Yes, please I hope so. A-