Wednesday, December 31, 2008

75. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I received this title in the Grinch Exchange of books at my local book club’s holiday party. This is an epistolary (letters/telegrams/notes written back and forth) historical fiction novel set in 1946 in London and Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. Lead author Mary Ann Shaffer, a librarian, visited Guernsey in 1976. She became ill before the book was finished (passing away in February 2008, before its publication), and her niece, children’s author Annie Barrows, saw it through.

The protagonist is Juliet Ashton, a 30-something successful author looking for her next book subject. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey who wound up with one of her secondhand books. He piques her curiosity when he mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and it sparks a series of correspondence between Juliet, Dawsey, and other residents of Guernsey, as well as with her editor Sidney and his sister, Sophia, and others.

Juliet learns that the Society was formed while the Nazis occupied Guernsey during World War II. The literary part was the quick thinking of Elizabeth McKenna, who invents it when a group of islanders are caught out after curfew. It then becomes real, with a typical refreshment becoming part of the group’s name:

Since there was scant butter, less flour, and no sugar to spare on Guernsey then, Will concocted a potato peel pie: mashed potatoes for filling, strained beets for sweetness, and potato peelings for crust. . .this one became a favorite. (p. 51)

Juliet learns (as does the reader) about the hardships the islanders (and Todt forced laborers) faced during the war. She also learns about their courage and heroism, particularly that of Elizabeth, who has not yet come home from Nazi imprisonment when the book begins.

This book was a perfect read for the holiday season. Not quite fluff, but not great literary fiction either. There are over 20 characters corresponding, and it is hard to keep track of and distinguish between them all, especially the minor characters, particularly since some of them are stereotypes.

I also had some minor concerns with the book. It was hard to believe that letters (not telegrams) could be delivered so quickly post-war between the island of Guernsey and bombed-out London – sometimes in as little as two days. The romance also didn’t ring true (spoiler alert - highlight to read: on page 131, Juliet stalls one suitor by saying, “I’ve known you two months. It’s not long enough for me to be certain that we should spend the rest of our lives together,” yet she accepts another suitor after only a little longer.).

Some of the problems with the book are due to the letter format. It works well in the first half of the book, when Juliet is writing to the people on Guernsey, but once she actually goes there for a visit and the correspondence is mainly from her back to Sidney and Sophia and others outside Guernsey, the islanders lose much of their voice. In addition, when the islanders are writing, they all sound as though they were written by the same person.

Nevertheless, this is still an enjoyable read. The descriptions of Guernsey make me want to go there. A lover of classics will enjoy their mentions in the letters, and history buffs will enjoy learning a little more about the interesting wartime history of the Channel Islands. It was also nice to read a book that subtly promotes the art of letter writing (lost and replaced by abbreviated and often artificial email and text messages).

Some of my favorite lines in the book are in Juliet’s first letter to Dawsey: "I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers," as well as “That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” (pp. 11-12) I also love it when Isola Pribby writes to Juliet, “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." (p. 53)

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