What is this about?: Emmy is an aspiring journalist — war correspondent — in 1941, eager for her first chance at being a journalist. She applies for a job that she thinks will get her started, but instead finds herself sorting letters for Mrs Bird’s advice column, and typing responses. And then, she decides to start answering some letters on her own.
What else is this about?: This is a slice of life in war-torn England, with a young woman who is trying to find her way in a time when women are often left behind, worrying about their sons and husbands in battle. The story is about finding the good in the darkest of times, about strong friendships and standing up for what you believe in. It is filled with humour, and relentless cheerfulness that is utterly charming.
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 Mrs. Bird is one of those unassuming books that turn your expectations upside down, and make you smile so hard because it’s just so wonderfully enjoyable.
This book makes me utterly tongue-tied
I feel so muddled trying to put this review together only because there’s so much to gush about. It’s like I want to tell you guys about Emmy, this wonderful, determined young woman who wants nothing more than to be doing serious war stories, and finds herself working for a women’s magazine answering letters from readers who want help with their troubles.
But there’s also the darkness of the war hanging over the whole book, about life as it was in 1941 — like after an air raid, when Emmy is manning the switchboard at the fire house, and getting tons and tons of calls, and all she can do is her best to get the men out to those calls until there are no more men to send.
AJ Pearce has found the best balance between the darkness of a story set during a war, and the light that comes with the relationships that sustain you in such a situation.
But I actually should talk about the plot too
So Emmy finds herself answering a job ad to be a lady war correspondent and instead finds herself sorting letters for Mrs. Bird, the formidable editress of Woman’s Friend. She has a strict set of rules about what letters she will answer and what she won’t, and the list of things she won’t — adultery, falling in love, passion, problems in the bedroom — is longer than the list of things she will answer in her advice column.
And into this comes Emmy, who identifies with the letters Mrs Bird is getting, with the problems of convincing parents that young girls know their own minds and hearts, or young women who don’t know what to do when their fiances tell them they’re not interested in them physically.
There’s a lonliness to these letter writers, something acknowledged in the book too. These women have no one to turn to — if they’re lucky they have their friends — and they are in need of advice in a time when all anyone wants to do is survive the war, and women aren’t supposed to do or feel much of anything.
That strikes a chord in Emmy, and she begins answering the letters, doling out what advice she can, and signing them all as from Mrs Bird. She manages it too, until the poop hits the fan.
But that’s not all the book is about
The strongest, best thing about this book is the friendships and relationships Emmy makes. If it’s not with the girls who volunteer with her at the fire station, it’s with her boss and Kathleen, who works in the office with her. These are by no means Emmy’s most important relationships, but Pearce gives them such heart and soul, you can’t help but get caught in them.
Then there’s Charles, who is a soldier she meets for a short time, and realises she likes him enough to keep writing to him while he is away, as much as possible without fail because it’s what he looks forward to while he is at war. There are her parents and her brother who are worried she’s in London while the German air raids are happening, and are only mentioned for a brief couple of scenes, but the love they have for each other leaps off the page.
Last there’s Bunty, her best friend and roommate who knows her inside out, and around who the toughest time for Emmy revolves in this book. I loved that it was this relationship that defines her, and not a romance, which took a backseat to these two. These two know each other inside out, and with that comes the capacity to help each other and to hurt each other greatly.
You may see the conclusion coming, but your heart will break for these two, and what they have to go through, and you’ll understand both their POVs. And that’s a beautiful part of AJ Pearce’s writing.
Dear Mrs Bird is one of the most Unexpected Delights of my reading this year, and I am utterly besotted by it!