Dear Mrs. Bird: A Novel
- By AJ Pearce
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
- July 24, 2018
A young woman in wartime Britain learns to give her own advice.
I am genetically drawn to advice columns.
Hand me a Sunday New York Times and watch me flip directly to the Ethicist or Social Q’s, both the kind of advice features that my mother would’ve made a beeline for if we had been Times readers when I was growing up.
Instead, we made do with the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald, which together provided my mom with both Dear Abby and Ann Landers as her morning coffee companions — a two-advice-column habit she passed on to me by junior high.
I suspect it’s this long-lived fascination that explains why I was immediately drawn to the premise of Dear Mrs. Bird by first-time novelist AJ Pearce. I’m confident my mother would have enjoyed this book as well. It’s full of great characters, witty dialogue, historic backdrops, and a thoughtful recurring thread of what it means to be true to one’s self no matter how botched-up the circumstances may be.
Set in wartime London, Dear Mrs. Bird is narrated by Emmeline Lake, known as Emmy to her friends, who introduces herself by combining a Luftwaffe-induced sleeplessness with a note of pure delight at having procured an onion for the evening’s stew — a vivid snapshot of what constituted the New Normal during the Blitz.
While that unfortunate lack of shut-eye and lucky extra dinner ingredient offer historical context, it’s a help-wanted advertisement for a job at a London publishing house that sets the drama of Dear Mrs. Bird in motion.
Emmy is certain the position (rather vaguely described in the ad) is the perfect steppingstone to a career she’s longing for — that of Lady War Correspondent. With equal parts glee and assurance, she responds posthaste to Mrs. Henrietta Bird, confident her great adventure is about to begin.
Alas, it takes our over-optimistic heroine a chapter and a half to figure out that Mrs. Bird is not exactly a war correspondent. Instead, she offers old-school advice to forlorn women in need of bucking up for a fusty ladies’ magazine with a dwindling readership.
“There’s nothing that can’t be sorted out with common sense and a strong will,” is Mrs. Bird’s Keep Calm and Carry On motto.
Having already accepted the job, Emmy soon realizes that her main obligation as Mrs. Bird’s assistant will be to reject all letters with subjects that are vaguely unpleasant or socially inappropriate. The list of taboo topics is so long that Emmy can barely eke out a half-dozen acceptable questions per week for consideration and, even then, she despairs over the minimum of empathy her boss applies to even the blandest of queries.
Blessedly for the other characters (and, I confess, for this reader), Mrs. Bird disappears for great lengths of time and pages, leaving Emmy and her cohorts to carry on, all on their own. Advice is in short supply all around as a young generation finds itself in an era where precedents don’t exist, and where the old tenets make less and less sense.
Emmy can’t help but wonder how Mrs. Bird can blithely dismiss the plights of the women who write to her when, clearly, they have no one else to turn to. What use are the old rules of decorum, Emmy wonders, when Hitler has turned the world upside-down? How can proper etiquette be adhered to when you don’t know what tomorrow may bring?
And, honestly, what harm would it do to return some cheerful notes of encouragement in the pre-stamped envelopes that so many of Mrs. Bird’s correspondents provide?
Just as she has launched her undercover writing project, Emmy’s personal life is abruptly upended by a telegram from her beau (to which Bunty, Emmy’s intrepid flat-mate and dearest friend, responds with perhaps the best bit of wartime dialogue ever: “A telegram? What is he doing sending a telegram when he’s not dead?”).
It isn’t lost on Emmy how, at just the moment when she has begun responding to Mrs. Bird’s rejected advice-seekers, it’s she herself who could use some help finding her way.
Author Pearce has nested a breezy tale of a young woman’s stint as a secret advice columnist within the daunting reality of life in a city under siege. And despite the fact that her title character is the least believable of all, Pearce successfully uses the existence of Mrs. Bird to reveal the story of the younger generation emerging from the Blitz.
In the end, it’s Emmy’s willingness to never give up on those who need help, and the myriad acts of kindness that she and her friends offer up to each other and total strangers alike, that transcend the decades and the circumstances and make this novel sing.
That’s good advice, all around.
Kristin H. Macomber lives in Cambridge, MA.