Book Review: Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce

 

A charming, irresistible debut novel 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, bombs are falling. Emmy 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 seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, 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 letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

Dear Mrs. Bird is the story of plucky heroine Emmaline Lake, who dreams of becoming a war correspondent but mistakenly ends up with a job as a typist for a women’s magazine — a magazine which tends to feature pieces on cooking, sewing, and romantic fiction. Part of Emmy’s job is to sort the incoming letters addressed to Mrs. Bird, the fiercely old-fashioned “editress” who won’t tolerate letters on forbidden topics (such as love, marriage, or intimacy), and whose main advice to readers seems to be to buck up and stop feeling sorry for oneself.

Emmy feels compassion for the writers of these ignored letters, and despite being young and inexperienced herself, decides that these women clearly need someone to respond and encourage them. She begins secretly corresponding with the letter writers, sending them letters back offering warmth and practical guidance, and even dares to sneak a few of the Unpleasant letters and her responses into the printed magazine, knowing that Mrs. Bird never reads the finished product.

Meanwhile, Emmy works as a volunteer for the fire service, answering the desperate phone calls that come in reporting fires during each air raid, and is determined that she must make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. Despite the horror of the bombings, Emmy manages to enjoy life as well, living with her best friend Bunty, celebrating Bunty’s engagement, and even meeting a charming young man of her own.

Things go wrong, of course. Emmy’s life is thrown completely off course by one particularly horrific air raid… and as expected, her secret life as an advice columnist can’t stay secret forever.

I really enjoyed Dear Mrs. Bird for its breezy, “keep calm and carry on”, chin-up tone, blending a sense of fun with the knowledge that the war is ever-present and ready to steal away one’s home and friends and family. Emmy is an engaging main character, a little naive but always well-intentioned. She doesn’t always make the best choices, but her heart is in the right place, and she’s completely devoted to her friends and to her country. It’s lovely to see Emmy’s compassion for the sad, worried letter-writers — she understands that they write to “Mrs. Bird” because they have no place else to turn, and she takes it upon herself to make sure that they’re heard and given some measure of practical guidance and hope.

The bombing of the Café de Paris, a key turning point in the story, is a true event, and that makes it even more powerful in the context of the book. It’s but one horrific incident in the London Blitz, but it serves to illuminate the personal tragedies and the immediacy of the destruction experienced by the people of London during that awful time. In Dear Mrs. Bird, the author shows the uncertainty of living daily life, going to work and going out with friends, knowing that on any night when the skies are clear, the world may come crashing down around you.

I did wish for a little more at the end of the book. I would have liked to know what happened next, and how the remainder of the war years went for Emmy, Bunty, and their circle of friends. Likewise, while there’s a resolution for the plot about Emmy’s secret letter writing, I wanted more — how did it work out? What happened next? I guess that’s a pretty good sign that the book captured my interest!

The other element I wished for a bit more of was the letters themselves. There are several featured throughout the book, but I think the storyline and Emmy’s input would have benefited from even more — more letters, more of Emmy’s responses. The author’s note at the end of the book is fascinating, as she discusses being inspired by the advice columns from women’s magazines of the era. It’s hard to imagine, sitting here in our relatively peaceful times, that columns such as “Dear Abby” would be filled with letters not just about romance and dating, but about the difficulty of falling in love and raising children while bombs are falling and one’s loved ones are off on the front lines.

Dear Mrs. Bird strikes a balance between plucky optimism and can-do spirit and the sorrow and worry of life on the homefront while a war rages on. It’s a tough tone to maintain, but author AJ Pearce pulls it off beautifully. I was engaged by the plot and the characters, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with Emmy. It’s a quick read, and highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: Dear Mrs. Bird
Author: AJ Pearce
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce

    • Reading the author’s notes made me want to read some of the real historical letters that she found during her research. What a fascinating piece of history!

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