Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Post-Office Girl

I finished The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig last night and the first words out of my mouth were “wow.” I didn’t expect that ending at all but it was perfect and has made me think constantly about the characters as I went about my day today. What did I think happened afterward? There are so many scenarios I can envision but let me start at the beginning so you’ll know what this book is about.

Christine Hoflehner lives in a small town in Austria and works for the post office. Every day it’s the same, work to make a meager living, take care of her invalid mother and live with nothing to look forward to. The Great War has left the family without some of their family members, without money and without dreams.

It seems that all around life is the same for everyone in the small town. Every thing is regimented and Christine’s days all fall into a pattern.

“Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thousands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters onto the canceling desk with the same swiveling motion, will slam the blackened brass canceler onto hundreds of thousands or millions of stamps with the same brief thump. Probably the wrist will even learn to function better and better, ever more mechanically and unconsciously, detached more and more completely from the conscious self. The hundreds of thousands of letters will always be different letters, but always letters. The stamps different stamps, but always stamps. The days different, but each one lasting from eight o’clock until noon, as the years come and go, always the same, the same, the same.”

Can’t you just feel the desperation at the monotony? Christine’s fortune is about to change though when she receives a telegram from her aunt, who due to a scandal had left the country and stayed out of touch for many years. Aunt Claire is now married to a wealthy man and as they take their vacation in the Swiss Alps they invite Christine to join them.

At first the young woman is a bit hesitant to go but upon arrival and after she is taken under her aunt’s wing, and is shown how to dress and how to live a different kind of lifestyle, a new Christine begins to emerge, a confident young woman who is finally living life.

“In her giddiness, unable to imagine that everyone isn’t burning with enthusiasm, isn’t in a fever of high spirits, of passionate delight, she’s lost her sense of balance. She’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.”

Unfortunately Christine’s newfound exuberance will be cut short. A bit of vile gossip and before she knows it, she’s back in her old life. But having tasted something new and so wonderful will only make her former existence even more unbearable to endure. The second part of the story is filled with all the hopelessness and bitterness that fill Christine’s thoughts but strangely this doesn’t feel like a depressive story. What happens next is that there is quite a bit of suspense as Christine meets a young man who is also filled with the same kind of desperation she feels and their lives will take some unexpected turns.

I really loved this story for the writer’s ability to capture such highs and lows in the characters and for giving us a picture of what Europe must have been like for many people after the Great War.

I have to say that in the couple of years that we’ve had this online book discussion group going on we’ve read some amazing literature and every year at least one of the Slaves choices ends up on my Favorites of the Year list. I’m sure this book will be on it for ’09.

Cross Posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand

5 comments:

Stefanie said...

Wasn't that a cliff hanger of and ending? I am glad Zweig didn't give us simple answers to Christine's ills and left us with something to wonder about.

Melanie said...

I felt the same way about the end of this story - wow! This is one of the best of the year so far for me as well. I was simply amazed at how Zweig captured the agony Christine felt at being returned to her miserable life after a glimpse of something better.

Iliana said...

Stefanie - Exactly. I'm so glad we didn't find out what next because of course so many world events also await them that who knows what could have happened.
Melanie - I'm glad you really enjoyed it too. Funny, that when I first got the book I had sort of forgotten what it was about and I kept thinking oh I don't know about this. What a wonderful surprise.

Danielle said...

Zweig certainly captured the highs and lows of Christine's emotions and the dire circumstances of Ferdinand. The second half wasn't really a pleasant read, but it was an excellently written book. This is a book that will certainly stick with me as well.

SFP said...

I read a perfectly nice novel about a group of sisters forced to make their own way in the late 1880s on the heels of this one, and oh, did it ever pale in comparison. Zweig makes the reader feel what his characters go through in a really impressive way.

I'm so glad everyone enjoyed it!