Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical, Second World War
Publisher: Dial Press / Bloomsbury
Publication Date: First published in 2008
Hardcover/Paperback: 274 pages
January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Borrowed from a friend
Why did I read this book: A friend of mine, knowing I love epistolary novels and stories in a Second World War setting, put this book in my hands after she read it and loved it. It was sitting on my nightstand when Elizabeth Wein, author of the fabulous Code Name Verity mentioned it as one of her influences and that was what made me finally read it.
In a recent article, Elizabeth Wein, the author of Code Name Verity (right now, my favourite read of 2012) listed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as one of her literary influences. Coincidentally, I had a copy of the book sitting on my nightstand, lent to me by a colleague whose love for books equals (if not surpasses) my own and who had raved about it. Based on the strength of these two recommendations, I read the book and ended up loving it with a passion. It reminded me of some of my favourite books: Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (for its fascinating and selfless characters) and Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (for its narrative format and main character’s voice).
It’s 1946 and author Julie Asthon doesn’t know what to write next. Her Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War column in the Spectator was very popular during the War but now she wants to put it behind her and work on something new. That’s when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands), a pig farmer who acquired a book by Charles Lamb that had once belonged to Juliet (it has her name on it) and whose love for the book prompted him to contact her to ask for further recommendations of other works by Charles Lamb. They begin a correspondence and Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the name itself is enough to make Juliet extremely curious – what in the world is a Potato Peel Pie? – and when she learns that the society came about because of a roast pig party and the need to keep it a secret in the German-occupied island, she decides she needs to hear more about it.
Juliet then starts to research everything she can about Guernsey under the German Occupation: Guernsey children were evacuated to England just as the island was invaded by a huge contingent of Germans and the island was completely isolated from the mainland and some of its inhabitants were sent away to concentration camps. In fact, a concentration camp was built on the island itself (the only ever on British soil) to host slave labourers. But those are merely hard-boiled facts. It is not until Juliet starts receiving letters from other members of the Literary Society that she is able to see a human portrait of the island and its inhabitants under German Occupation.
The book is written exclusively in letter format (oh, epistolary novels, you are my kryptonite) and it follows Juliet’s correspondence with not only her new friends in Guernsey but also with her editor (and friend) Sidney and others friends. The core of the story belongs perhaps to two people: Juliet and Elizabeth McKenna. Juliet’s growing love for Guernsey, its people and its stories as well as her focus on her own growth as a person and as a writer is one of the main threads. But as the letters keep coming, it is easy to see the importance of Elizabeth for this story: she is the one who in the spur of the moment, created the Society. Her actions are extremely brave and heroic and although we never hear directly from her (the reason, too spoilery to mention here) but her life touched the lives of all the members of the Society. I can’t express how much I loved that a book that refers to events during Second World War has a female character as the most heroic, courageous, selfless character of them all. I can’t count the many stories have I read (or watched) that featured male heroes doing tremendous acts of courage and being hailed for them – so I will take this story and embrace it, thank you very much.
That said, even though the core of the story might be Juliet and Elizabeth’s lives, its essence is about much more than just the one person. It celebrates life, love, endurance in the face of adversity and above all the love for reading and writing. Each member recounts how reading and attending the meetings of the society helped them get through the hard times and I loved how each person approached reading in different ways (there is one guy who read only one book throughout and managed to get new things out of it every time).
This is without a doubt a very uplifting, delightful story with a lot of light and funny moments and quirky characters. But it never denies or hides the horrors of the Second World War either. It depicts the German occupation with a degree of shared difficulties that I truly valued. There are people going hungry on both sides. There are vicious, coward, stupid, good, brave, well-natured people on both sides. It doesn’t shy away from the truths about death, torture and survival. One of the most poignant moments comes from concentration camp survivors who find it hard to share their stories with those that did not experience it because how can they possibly understand the horror? It is a very human, nuanced story and I appreciated it all the more for it.
As I was thinking about how to review the book, I thought about this recent video by Ron Charles in which he makes fun of stereotypical, formulaic words and phrases reviewers use in their reviews. But do you know…sometimes, these things ARE true and they WORK. So here it goes:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at once delightfully funny AND sadly poignant, uncompromisingly romantic and ultimately unforgettable: a tour de force!
That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you on to a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfect
Reading Next: Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer
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