Dear Mrs. Bird is in turn both heartwarming and humorous. AJ Pearce's debut (I still can't believe it's her first published novel) presents a heroine who will stay with me for a long time and a story that is equally as memorable. This novel was such a delight to read and I couldn't bear to put it down or see it end.
Here's the synopsis:
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.I've realized recently that, while I don't read a great deal of historical fiction, the ones I read the most of tend to take place somewhere between 1900 and 1950. Basically, a lot of stories set during or around two major wars. You'd think it would get dreary but I've been lucky in finding stories that are practically perfect and are utterly absorbing. Dear Mrs. Bird is another example of a World War II set novel I've read in recent months that I absolutely adored. For your interest and further reading, the others include Jennifer Robson's Goodnight from London, Kate Quinn's The Alice Network, Ellen Keith's The Dutch Wife, and Genevieve Graham's Come from Away. (I just did a count and I've read 8 historical novels in 2018. 5 of them take place during or just after WWII and another was set in WWI.) It actually felt like Pearce had written this book in 1940 because the phrases she uses and the scenes she set felt so incredibly realistic. Of course I don't know what it was like to be in London during WWII but I feel like I've read enough books and watched enough movies set in that time to get a sense when something doesn't feel right.
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.
I've been seeing Dear Mrs. Bird compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which, incidentally, I've only just recently read and loved to bits. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend the audiobook.) and I think that comparison needs some clarity. Both novels take place in and around London in the 1940s. Mrs. Bird occurs in 1940, right in the thick of the Blitz, and Guernsey takes place in 1946, after WWII is over. Both novels have absolutely delightful heroines who have a wonderful group of colleagues and friends. But where things get tricky is when readers are led to expect in Mrs. Bird the kind of letter writing Guernsey gave us. It's so not the case. I wasn't expecting that so I wasn't surprised or let down but I know other people have been. Such is the danger of comparing books - especially when one is so well known for something special (like Guernsey is with it being such a perfect example of an epistolary novel).
But let's talk about Emmy. She was an absolute gem. She was sweet and funny and sometimes horribly awkward and a bit misguided. But I really thought her heart was in the right place throughout. And what a heart she had! She was such a kind person - I don't know how anyone could think otherwise - and so desperately wanted to do her bit for the war efforts. I loved that she had spunk and I worried about what her life would be like after the war when women would start to be forced back into the home. Her friendship with Bunty is so precious and Pearce did such a wonderful job of writing about it that I really wanted to be friends with them too.
One thing that blows me away with novels such as this is the reinforcement of the "keep calm and carry on" mentality people in London had during the war. I am constantly amazed when reading these stories that the people were able to persevere and go about their lives as normally as possible during months of nightly (or near-nightly) bombings. I know there's not much else to do but buck up and go about your business I'm not sure how easily I would have been able to carry on with my daily life.
The actual narrative of the novel is a good one but, I've realized this while writing my review, it's not what's going to make Dear Mrs. Bird memorable for me. I loved that it gave me a glimpse into the lighter side of a period of time that we so often think of only in terms of how awful it was (don't get me wrong, a world war is hella awful). This novel was more than the plot for me, even if it was really well written and had a good pace (until the end...I do feel the end was a tad rushed).
I could go on and on about Dear Mrs. Bird - about how it will tug at your heartstrings while also making you laugh out loud, about the wonderful characters, and more - but I really want you to find out how wonderful AJ Pearce's debut novel is for yourself. Buy it or borrow it from a friend or the library but get your hands on a copy if you're a historical fiction fan. I really don't think you'll be disappointed.
*A copy of this novel was provided in exchange for review consideration by the publisher, Simon & Schuster Canada. All opinions are honest and my own.*