Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Pages:  290
Format: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, Kindle/ebook
Publisher:  Dial Press (July 2008)
Book Source:  Private Loan
Category:  Historical Fiction
Style:  Character-driven, written as letters between characters

Synopsis from GoodReads:

“ 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.” 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.

My Take:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came through my front door, another one of my friend Ginger's recommendations.  Truth to tell, my #1 daughter-in-law, Ariane, recommended it to me first by a couple of months, but she failed to actually put the book into my hands and so it slipped by me.  When she reminded me—she was there when Ginger dropped by—I remembered, as I recalled her repeated admonition:  "Yeah.  The author got the manuscript finished, but she never published it.  Then she died, and her niece came along and got it published.  But you have to publish your book because I'm not a writer and can't do that!"

In truth, Ms. Shaffer fell into ill health while in the process of getting her book ready to be published, and Ms. Barrows did the extra work the editors required before it went to print, Ms. Shaffer still living, but the sentiment is the same.  I really appreciate Ariane's vote of confidence.  It helps to keep me moving forward.  But I digress.  Ginger and Ariane are both correct.  I love this book.  My sister, Carrie—also present at the time—also read it and recommended it.  It begs the questions:  was I the only person who hadn't read this book?  I wouldn't be surprised, as it is quite enchanting.

The second book in a week I've read focused on a writer trying to figure out what to write, like Once Upon A Tour, GLPPS is not truly about the writing but about the people around the writer who influence and inspire her.  In this case, the author in question, Juliet, living in 1946-London receives a query from a complete stranger living on the isle of Guernsey, a little bit of England off the coast of France, one of what are known as the Channel Isles.  Unable to expend the resources to protect it, the UK allowed Germany to overrun Guernsey during the war, and its inhabitants lived under Nazi Occupation for five years.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is formed as a spur-of-the-moment ruse to cover illicit activities from the Nazis but ultimately grows into a group of people who use literature and camaraderie to help one another get through the hardships and heartbreak of the war.  This book is about how Juliet comes to know and love what once were complete strangers and how they change her life forever, as she does for them.

A cast of enchanting characters populate Guernsey:  a quiet stone mason/pig farmer, quite common but the backbone of the group; a senior lady who mothers everyone and lends the disparate group an air of respectability; an aging fisherman who is forced to send his grandson to England to escape the Occupation, then loses his daughter and her newborn on the day the Germans roll in; an eccentric free spirit rumored to be a witch who sells her herbal concoctions in a market stall; a drunken valet impersonating his absent lord of an employer and draining his wine cellar; an orphaned love child in desperate need of a mother; a holier-than-thou busybody who condemns everyone and everything; a courageous young woman, the heart of group, who binds them all together with love and self-sacrifice.  Juliet is courted by a rich, pushy American, is doted on by her editor, supported by her girlhood friend, and embraced by the good people of Guernsey.

I find "correspondence" novels somewhat gimmicky and often strained, especially because letters between friends tend to rely a great deal upon previous mutual understanding which doesn't translate well into storytelling.  Either the reader is forced to accept that the correspondents write tomes filled with unnecessary (to the recipient) minutiae with each and every letter they send, or the details feel too sketchy, unsatisfying, or even confusing to the reader.  However, Mdms. Shaffers and Barrows weave an engrossing, heart-warming, and sometimes tear-jerking tale with just the right balance between plausibility and necessary narrative.  The voices of each character are distinctive, humorous, and natural.  The tone is light and generous, albeit sad at times.  This is, after all, a story about the privations of war, starvation, oppression, betrayal, and brutality, but also about hope and courage and love and sacrifice.  

The book ends with joy and victory.  True, the war is over, but life is still difficult.  Shortages abound and the healing is slow.  Europe still reels in the aftershocks of pandemic destruction.  But, the new day is dawning, Guernsey is picking itself up and dusting itself off, setting about the work of rebuilding, as is London and the rest of the UK.  Hope gleams brightly and love, if not able to conquer all, overcomes a great deal.  It inspires hope and infuses fresh courage and determination in our friends.  Happily ever after becomes a glorious new beginning.

Bottom Line:  Read this book.  I borrowed my copy, but I want to own it.  It's on my read and read again list.

Discuss:  Next up:  Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, another book about a writer and her aspirations.  How do you feel about books about writers writing?  Or, for that matter, musicals about making musicals or plays about putting on plays?  Self-serving, slip-shod shortcut, or simply good practice in "writing about what you know"?  Leave a comment below.  Tell me where your thoughts wander.   

FTC Disclaimer: This book was independently purchased. I received no compensation from the author or their agent for this content.

1 comment:

tomiannie said...

I love this one -- it is just a beautiful story, beautifully written.