Themes Explored: magic of reading, self-discovery, loyalty, courage, standing strong in the face of danger, meeting the Other, endurance, cruelty, war, belonging,
Synopsis: 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. (Adapted From Goodreads)
Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was inspired by Mary Ann Shaffer’s visit to Guernsey in 1976. Shaffer traveled to the island and was stranded there due to inclement weather. While waiting for the fog to finally lift, Shaffer read every book available in the airport bookstore. Several years later, at the urging of her book club, Shaffer used her experience to write her own novel set in Guernsey. Shaffer died before her novel was ready for publication. It was edited by Annie Barrows, her niece and co-author. I was given a copy of the novel by my best friend. She read it in a book club, loved it, and gave me a copy. It was a great read and I am glad she passed it along.
This book was written in an epistolary style, which means there are no normal chapter divisions. Instead, the narrative unfolds through various correspondences between the characters. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set in January 1946 right after London begins to recover from the Second World War. Juliet Ashton, the main protagonist, is a moderately well-known author who lost her home and is looking for a new adventure to occupy her time. During the war, Juliet wrote a column published under the name Izzy Bickerstaff. After the war, her publisher collected all her columns and published them in a book called Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. When the novel opens, Juliet is looking for a more serious topic to write about and publish under her own name.
One day, Juliet unexpectedly received a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams. Adams lives in a small farming community on the island of Guernsey, which is one of the islands located in the English Channel between Britain and France. He decided to write to Juliet because he found her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb. As a member of the local literary club, Adams is looking for new books to read and hoped that Juliet would help him secure more. The entire plot unfolds via letters between Juliet and several members of the Guernsey literary society. Other than Adams, the secondary main protagonist was Elizabeth McKenna, a young woman who was already deceased by the time Juliet begins writing Adams. When the Germans occupied Guernsey. Elizabeth was sent to a concentration camp and shot. She gave birth to a daughter who was raised by Adams and several other literary members for four years. Via the ongoing letters, Juliet becomes drawn into the lives of the eclectic members of the book club. These unique people found solace in literature during the horrific German occupation of Guernsey. After exchanging letters for months, Juliet decides to visit and realizes that the London lifestyle no longer holds any appeal for her.
While the core of the story revolves around the lives of Juliet and Elizabeth, the overarching narrative is about more than just the two of them. The narrative is about rising out of the ashes and rebuilding a life and community afterwards. It celebrates love, life, endurance in the face of adversity, and how literature can foster a sense of community. Every member of the Literary Society attended the meetings in order to briefly escape from the hardships of life brought about by hostile occupation. This is a delightful read full of quirky characters and witty moments. Interspersed with the lighter moments are poignant moments about concentration camp survivors who struggle to share stories. There is also depictions of life on both sides. People go hungry on both sides, hunger makes everyone vicious and stupid. But bravery and courage still shine through the darkness. This is a nuanced story depicting both the dark and light side of human nature.
I am not the greatest fan of epistolary novels but I did enjoy reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It is well written and enjoyable. Honestly, I cannot think of any constructive criticism to say about this novel. It is one of the few novels that I truly enjoyed reading without finding any distracting details in the narrative. Of course this novel is not for everyone. The narrative moves slowly and takes a long time to reach the main climax. And the style can be a little disconcerting as the epistolary narrative is a dramatic change from the normal fiction format. But, then again, sometimes a break from normal is good. Overall, the novel is just a delightful read and all the characters jump off the page. There has never been such an eccentric mix of characters showing up in the same narrative before. This is the type of book to read on a lazy or rainy day.
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, The Dial Press, 2008, 9780385340991