Long on my TBR (to be read) pile, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had so many intriguing factors in its favor that I could not put it off any longer. Firstly, I cannot tell you how many of my customers come in searching for this novel even two years after publication. It was on the bestseller list for over a year and is a book group favorite. Secondly, it takes place during and after WWII, one of my favorite historical periods. And thirdly, it is filled with literary references. The puzzling bit is that it is written in epistolary format!
“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.” Isola Pribby, page 53
Yes, an entire novel written as a collection of letters. A very popular style in the mid seventeenth-century, the epistolary novel was utilized by the venerable Samuel Richardson, no less, in his bestselling novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749). This format has its challenges – like characters not being able to interface with each other directly and react in the moment. Jane Austen discovered this dilemma after writing Lady Susan in 1795, and the first drafts of Elinor and Marianne (later Sense and Sensibility) and First Impressions (later Pride and Prejudice). The latter two were rewritten into the third-person omniscient style that she is now famous for. Lady Susan remains unchanged, and for those who have read it, it is quite charming but not as accessible to modern readers as her later works. I was very curious to see how co-authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows could pull off a novel written in letters and why readers were clamoring to buy it.
“Sophie – what is the matter with me? Am I too particular? I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.” Juliet Ashton, page 8
In 1946 post war England, our heroine and unmarried thirty-something Juliet Ashton is ready to move on from her comedic war-time newspaper column to more serious fare. Interested in writing a novel, she is searching for the inspiration for a new story. Living in bombed out London she has few personal connections that are still alive. Her parents and brother are dead, and besides her agent Sidney and his sister Sophie, she has few friends and only one suitor, the “great catch,” the wealthy and imposing American publishing heir Markham V. Reynolds, Jr. who woos a woman who has lived for five years on war ratios with champagne, lobster and dancing at the Savoy. Heady stuff.
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey. Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” From Dawsey Adams, page 10
Juliet is pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from one of her readers, Dawsey Adams, a farmer on Guernsey Island who is now the owner of a used book by Charles Lamb with her name inscribed on the flyleaf. They strike up a correspondence and she learns about his co-founding of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an ad hock group first formed by residents to fool the Nazi’s into allowing after curfew movements during the German occupation of the island. Later, the book group would become the axis in their lives; both for fellowship and intellectual nourishment; building friendships and, changing perspectives. She was intrigued by his descriptions of the society’s eccentric members and activities and welcomes correspondence from them. What unfolds is a truly remarkable tale. As the society members retell firsthand accounts of their challenges and tragedies during their islands Nazi occupation, Juliet is drawn into their stories and feels that it would make a great subject for her next book. Her eventual visit to the island will change her life forever.
“We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.” Eben Ramsey, page 64
At times the epistolary format from twenty different voices had its limitations, but the authors overcome the challenge of characters not being able to talk to each other in real-time by supplying detailed accounts and engaging stories with humorous undertones. The narrative is primarily told through the viewpoint of Juliet, but the heart of the story is Guernsey resident twenty-something Elizabeth McKenna, co-founder of the Literary Society and later prisoner of war in Germany. Many of the anecdotal reminiscences told by the residents circle back to Elizabeth’s life, her brave heroism during their horrendous occupation and how her fellowhip and honor affected her friends, residents and concentration camp inmates.
“After all, what’s good enough for Austen ought to be good enough for anyone.” Juliet Ashton, page 274
The ongoing glimmer of hope of romance for our heroine Juliet kept me intrigued, like a cat watching a mouse, but it was not the main focus of this novel and I found its dénouement predictable and mildly satisfying. The tragedy, and this is a war-time tale with some troubling and gruesome bits, is offset by occasional humor, the joy of literature as a tonic especially during the worst of times, and the resilience of the human spirit. As many classic authors are mentioned and discussed: Lamb, Dickens, Bronte, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wilde, I was quite pleased that Jane Austen, my favorite author, was given her due deference and place of honor as the final to be discussed and her philosophies entrenched on the last page. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a delightful exploration of strength, compassion, enduring friendships, and the irrepressible spirit of the British people during WWII. I enjoyed it greatly.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Random House (2009)
Trade paperback (304) pages
© 2007-2010, Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose