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Book Review: Postcards from a Stranger

Title: Postcards from a Stranger
Author: Imogen Clark
Genre: Mystery, Fiction,

What It’s About: Cara Ferensby is left to take care of her ailing father–Joe Ferensby–in their town in the UK. Her brother, Michael, escaped to London to become a solicitor after graduating school, and hasn’t been back. She so happens to be on a call with Michael to discuss their father’s care, when Michael tells her that he has to go take care of a client. Cara spends the next few weeks taking care of her father, working on her wedding gowns for her clients, and also meeting with her best friend Beth, who hopes her boyfriend proposes to her soon.

After a particular incident where her dad gets into her workspace, Cara decides that enough is enough, and with Michael’s blessing, she hires a caretaker for Joe–Ms. Parkington, whom she calls Ms. P. As Ms. P helps her with taking care of a rapidly deteriorating father so Cara can work, Cara goes up to the attic that she had been long forbidden to enter as a child, in search of anything that could help trigger her father’s memories and bring lucidity. In her quest, she finds a box of letters that all say the same thing–I’m sorry and I love you–from an unnamed person. Cara goes through them and discovers that they stop on her 18th birthday, and start after her mother supposedly died in 1987. She begins to try to research if her mother is alive by checking records, and finding out that there’s nothing available.

As a result, she takes a trip to London to visit Michael, under the guise that she’s looking for textiles for her wedding dresses, and that night she tells him what she’s found. Michael listens to her theories but tells her to let it go, that he doesn’t want anything to do with it. Cara comes home, and invites Ms. P for a disastrous Christmas, where Ms. P tells her to let go of her anger towards her father–whatever that may be, and that maybe there’s more to whatever it is that Cara is going through. Cara decides that she wants to find out what happened to her mother, and phones Michael, who tells her that their mother had a sister–Ursula– and a friend who had a tattoo that Michael did not like as a kid because she was mean to them.

Cara begins to do research and finds Ursula, who is an artist living in San Francisco, and being represented by a gallery. Ursula really is private, but there is a picture where Cara finds Ursula with someone that could be her mother–she recognizes the woman by the piece of cloth she holds in that picture, which matches with a picture that she has of her mother. The image was taken in the 90s, giving credence to Cara’s theory that her mother is alive. She makes the decision to reach out to the gallery run by Skylar, stating that she will be in San Francisco in a couple of weeks, looking to purchase Ursula’s work, and hoping to meet the artist.

Over the week between Christmas and New Year’s, Cara meets Simeon with whom she spends some time, and they have sex on the night of New Years Eve after spending it together. Shortly thereafter, she leaves for San Francisco, running away from Simeon in a way, as she refuses to answer questions or give him more chances to allow their relationship to develop. Essentially, she tries to push him away, but during her visit to San Francisco, he still continues to reach out to her and they continue talking.

In San Francisco, Cara makes contact with Skylar, to whom she gives a letter to hand over to Ursula that she had written in an attempt to introduce herself. Skylar asks her to return the following day, which Cara does dutifully after visiting the Alcatraz, and finds out that Ursula has accepted to meet with her. So she meets with Ursula at the chosen restaurant after being drenched in the rain, and the women essentially get into an argument, with Ursula being standoffish, and Cara not willing to be a doormat. The matter ends in the two going their separate ways after the spat, and Cara believes she had lost her chance to meet her aunt.

The following day Ursula meets her in her lobby, and they give each other a second chance. They go to a nearby bakery, and Ursula has a negative opinion of Joe though Cara defends him. Ursula tells Cara of the upbringing she and Annie–Cara’s mom–had. Their mother had tried to defend them from their father, who was abusive in all sorts of manners, but the longer the abuse had gone on, the more it wore down their mom, and the more she looked away when their father took it out on them. The two of them made plans to escape the abusive household together, but then Annie met Joe on the way to her job at the retail store.

Joe complimented their mother, and got along with their father, going as far as getting drinks with their dad. He proposed to Annie, and she said yes, thinking that she was in love with him and he was her way out of the abusive household. When Annie announced her engagement, Ursula lashed out on her, but in retrospect, she believes that she could’ve been kinder. Then Ursula moved out to San Francisco, and the last she had heard of Annie, whom she calls Anneliese at a point during their conversation, was when Annie showed up at their mother’s doorsteps with Michael and baby Cara, telling her that she was leaving Joe. Their mother had turned Annie away on the doorstep, probably out of a sense of misguided loyalty–that she had suffered and put up with their father, so Annie had better stay with Joe as she is a married woman.

For a while, Ursula didn’t know anything of Annie, until Annie showed up in San Francisco. Cara asks about the affair that Joe had, which confuses Ursula, who then reveals that it was actually Annie who had an affair–with Tilly. Tilly had been well off with promises of escape and adventure, so Annie walked out with her, and then Joe got a restraining order against Annie, so she could not come near her kids. They traveled around Europe a lot before they showed up in San Francisco, which was the heart of the LGBTQ movement at the time. It became very obvious to Ursula that Tilly was looking for her to hook the two of them up with well known people, which Ursula would not do, and eventually the two of them left San Francisco, with very obvious cracks in their relationship. She hasn’t seen from Annie since.

This shocks Cara so much that she bolts from the cafe, and Ursula has to chase her through San Francisco to tell her the remainder of the story. Unfortunately, Ursula can only guess at what Annie’s motives were at the time, and why she left her children behind, though she asks whether Cara can be sure that Michael doesn’t know more to the story than he lets on. Then Ursula reveals that she had a relationship with an Irish man, and had a child–her daughter Skylar, who runs the gallery. She invites Cara to dine with them at her personal home, and the three of them have a wonderful time.

Cara switches her flight from her original destination to London, and asks Michael to meet her at the Tate Modern. There she confronts him about what he knows, and he tells her that he had woken up due to the arguments between their parents, the night that their mother had walked out. He saw the suitcase at the stairs and watched Annie walk out with Tilly, but he didn’t follow her, thinking that he would get in trouble. He admits that he found the papers from the solicitors–the restraining order against Annie that their father had taken out and so quickly too. Joe had gotten the restraining order the very next day after Annie had left, going to a judge in London, where they lived at the time, who particularly was against lesbian women and believed they were unfit mothers. The argument that he had with their dad on the eve of his departure to London was about that restraining order–he was so angry about it and those papers were things he discovered that made him want to be a solicitor. He had words with his father in front of Cara, but he decided to keep Cara innocent–to protect her, and not spill the beans that their mother was still alive, but had stayed away because of something their father had done. Then Michael went to his school, picked up his grades from the exams and went to London shortly thereafter.

Michael breaks down telling Cara this in front of the Tate Modern, and tells her that it was all about protecting her from everything–their father, the abandonment, the lack of care. He spent so many nights taking care of her because their father could not; she had been inconsolable with the disappearance of their mother, and their dad just locked himself in a room in the house, but wouldn’t speak to them. Cara forgives him, though she needs time and space to process this information.

She returns home, and finds that her father had been ill–not gravely ill that he wouldn’t be able to come out of the illness, but still ill nevertheless. She sits with him, realizing that he had done some horrible things but this husk of a man in front of her is not her father–Alzheimer’s had taken him away. Ms. P gently wakes Cara up, who had fallen asleep at her father’s bedside, and tells her that Joe had died peacefully in his sleep. Cara is distraught, but Ms. P walks her away and takes care of all of the arrangements. All Cara does is calls Michael the following morning to tell him the news, and she spends time with Beth, going through all of what she had been through.

The funeral for Joe Ferensby is very small–Cara, Beth, Ms. P, Michael, his wife and their two daughters, and a couple of people Joe knew from his time at the center that Cara sent him to every day. As the group leaves, Michael recognizes someone, and calls out “mom!” Cara and Ms. P, who Michael appears to be looking at, are confused, and Cara tells him that no, this is Ms. P, but Michael goes chasing a woman who just left the services. Cara follows him, and Michael talks to the woman, who admits that she is their mother, and the two of them hug. Cara, on the other hand, has absolutely no feelings towards this woman as she has no memories of Annie. It all becomes too much for her and Cara bolts, only to be found by Ms. P who takes her home separately from everyone else.

When Michael arrives to their home, he asks Cara to give Annie a chance to explain what happened, and Cara agrees, though she struggles to accept Annie’s decision to leave them. Annie tells them that Joe had started to become verbally abusive towards her, telling her that she can’t do anything right at home, so much to the point that she started to believe that she was useless and that they would be better off without her. She encountered Tilly at one of her lowest moments with Joe, and it was like Tilly was a fresh air, but she didn’t realize that she was really changing a dependency on Joe to a dependency on Tilly. Annie had wanted to go to work, which Joe forbade, and that was the reason for many of their arguments, including the one on the night that she left them. She had packed her suitcase and left, thinking that she could come back the following day to pick the two of them up and leave with them for good. But Joe changed the locks on the house, and she couldn’t get in. She spent most of the afternoon calling for Cara who was crying on the other side, through the mailbox, but Cara couldn’t hear her because Joe drowned her out with music. Then the police came, took her to jail for the disturbance, and Joe went and got a restraining order that would put her in jail if she ever laid eyes on her children. So she left with Tilly to explore the world, but she regretted the choice she made in leaving them behind, which is why she sent the letters, as she wanted them to know that she still loved them and still cared about them. Cara takes a walk after that and runs into Simeon. She tells him everything and he is very understanding of her predicament–not pushing her to answer what she is not ready to share.

A while later, Cara had sold the house owned by their father, putting up everything on eBay, and trashing everything else. Whatever half she got of the house, she used for purchasing her own home, while Michael used his half of the sale to supposedly by a flat for Annie. The two of them are enjoying each other’s presence, and Annie has been loving babysitting his two kids. But Cara still prefers to stay away from Annie, as living with her for the little while that she stayed in the house was like tiptoeing around broken glass. Simeon enters through the door of their house, calling out to Cara and brings over the goods in the bag that he has brought. He tells her to not be mad at him, but he couldn’t resist, and shows a baby outfit, to which Cara says that Lily wouldn’t be able to fit in, though she’s sure she could find an occasion for the child to wear the outfit. As Lily starts to fuss, she cuddles her and tells her that Mummy is always here, while Ms. P calls out from the kitchen that Cara needs to eat as a breastfeeding mum.

My Thoughts: I loved the twists and turns of this story–the parallels between Annie’s upbringing, and her marriage, as well as how the truth comes out for Cara. I find Cara’s boldness to be very refreshing in searching out the answer to what happened to Annie, and I love how the book paints the fact that one parent seems to be a saint (or a villain) until you realize that the choices each of them made were both bad and good. Bad for the children perhaps, but good for themselves–Joe could live with the lie that his wife died and play a widower, while Annie travelled around and got to experience the world to know that what she really wanted was to be with her kids, but couldn’t really do that because of Joe’s actions around the restraining order.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in reading a thriller that may not be one that ends in gory death or mystery–but one that explores the choices we make and the consequences they have for us, as well as the ripple effects that they create in the lives of other people.e

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