Kim's Reviews > The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
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's review
May 11, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: buddy-reads-with-jemidar, kindle
Read from May 04 to 11, 2012

Until I read this novel, my knowledge of the Channel Islands was limited to the breeds of dairy cattle which take their name from the Bailiwicks of Jersey and of Guernsey, the fact that the Islands are a tax haven and have a flower growing industry and my memories of the 1980s television series Bergerac. Thanks to the book, I now know more. In particular, I know that the Channel Islands were occupied by Germany during World War II. Given the geographical location of the Channel Islands, this doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s something I hadn’t thought about before. *

Set in 1946, the novel is in epistolary form and tells the story of an English writer who enters into correspondence with residents of Guernsey who make up the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This is an organisation which came about because some quick thinking was required to protect its members during the German occupation. The letters tell the story of the horrific impact of the occupation on Guernsey residents and the struggle to return to normal life after the end of the war.

This is a book with plenty of quirkiness and charm. Indeed, it’s a bit like a literary equivalent of Doc Martin: plenty of warm-hearted, kooky characters living their lives in a seriously picturesque setting. Not that there’s anything wronge with that. I love charm and quirkiness. In addition, the account of life under German occupation is extremely moving and the tale of loyalty, courage and resilience in the worst possible situations is inspirational. Mary Ann Shaffer (who sadly died before the novel was published) was clearly a wonderful storyteller.

However, as much as I was captivated by the charm of the narrative, this is not a perfect novel. The epistolary form is not easy to carry off and I felt that the voices of the different characters were not sufficiently distinct from each other. In addition, the voices of the characters at times did not appear to belong to 1946. Another problem for me was that the novel is a bit too easy and light to carry the weight of the very serious sub-plots: in particular (view spoiler). The author’s note written by Shaffer’s niece Annie Barrows (who wrote sections of the novel when Shaffer became too ill to continue with the writing) indicates that some substantial re-writing was required. I wonder whether this re-writing might have included the insertion of a romance, which felt a bit … I don’t know, rushed, maybe. In addition, the use of a character who is a labour camp survivor as a device to progress the romance sub-plot struck me as unnecessary.

There were also smaller issues with the novel which took me out of the narrative. For example, there is reference to a plan adopt an orphaned child. It was suggested that approval for adoption or guardianship of the child would be a decision for a local lawyer to make. This struck me as implausible. A quick Internet search revealed that prior to 1960, children in Guernsey could be fostered or cared for but not formally adopted. As I write this I know how pedantic I sound, but I feel it is something I would not even have noticed if I had not felt myself to be less than 100% engaged with the narrative.

My overall response is positive. In spite of the novel's flaws, the story is interesting, the characters are full of charm and the themes are uplifting. Plus, the novel has made me want to visit the Channel Islands, which is no bad thing. Indeed, I’m sure that this novel has been excellent for Guernsey tourism. In terms of a rating, this teeters between 3 and 4 stars. As always, I enjoyed sharing the reading experienced with my friend Jemidar.

*Since finishing the novel, I’ve also learned from my well-informed friend Jemidar, that the British monarch bears the title of Duke of Normandy because the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey are British Crown Dependencies. I’ve also been reminded that Gerald Durrell’s zoo is in Jersey. There is clearly plenty to know about the Channel Islands.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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Karlyne Landrum I read this a couple of years ago, and I... HAHA! won't tell you what I thought of it until you're finished...!

Booklovinglady I liked the humor in the book. Like Karlyne, I won't say more till you've finished :-)

message 3: by Hannah (new)

Hannah I'm just not a fan of epistolary novels, but I should probably try this one of these days. Thanks for a great review.

message 4: by Jane (new) - added it

Jane I need to dig this out and read it. It's either on the Shelf of Shame behind some of the other books, or in my 20yo's bedroom. Thanks for giving me a nudge in its direction.

Lisa Vegan Kim, Incredibly excellent review of this book! I learned a lot about the Channel Islands from the book, and now more from your review. I should also read up on them some more.

message 6: by Booklovinglady (last edited May 11, 2012 07:06AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Booklovinglady Hi Kim,

Now that you’ve finished the novel, I will go into it in a bit more detail.

I gave the novel a three star rating because I really liked the humour in it. And I liked putting the pieces of the puzzle together while reading more and more of the letters. I read the book because an Australian penpal recommended it to me and she was right to recommend it, because as I said, on the whole I liked it. But what rubbed me up the wrong way though, was the way the German occupation of Guernsey was described. (And believe me, I’m not at all sure I should try to explain my feelings here...)

As to WWII and the description of the German occupation of Guernsey, I had to keep reminding myself that the novel was written by an American author and not by someone who had actually lived in occupied territory (or by someone who had taken the time and effort to research this extensive subject properly). And yes, I do realize I might be either biased or oversensitive, or both, when it comes to this, but the United States have not been occupied territory during WWII. The Channel Islands, like most European countries, were occupied territory though. As the novel is partly set in Guernsey, I’m not debating the fact that the German occupation of Guernsey should be mentioned in the novel. But what really annoyed me was the way the author talked about what had been happening in Guernsey during the war. On the one hand it made me feel as if the people in Guernsey were the only ones in Europe who had a ‘bad time’ during the war (yes, I know, this is an understatement) while in fact the situation has been far worse in other parts of Europe. On the other hand, it gave me the distinct feeling that the author hadn’t researched this subject properly because the situation in Guernsey was described rather ‘lightly’.

And then there’s the fact that I’m Dutch, of course. Both my parents were born before WWII, which means their generation, as well as the generation of my grandparents, told me their stories of what it was like in the Netherlands during this period. And when I say they told me what it was like, I’m talking about German bombs (V1 and V2) meant for England but falling down on The Hague where my mum and my maternal grandparents lived, family members in hiding because they would have been sent to Germany otherwise, people starving from hunger, bombs meant for the Fokker aerospace factory in Amsterdam but coming down in the wrong place and killing relatives who owned a bakery just across the street from where my dad and my paternal grandparents lived, and so on and so forth. And that’s just ‘personal’ history. I’m certain this is what made me so annoyed (biased? oversensitive?) by the author’s description of the German occupation of Guernsey.

The reason why I still gave this book three stars is partly because I really liked the humour and partly because I kept reminding myself that WWII probably, in all honesty, couldn’t have been described differently by the author, as it would have completely changed the tone of the novel and I doubt that would have been the intension of the author. On the other hand, there is still this nagging little feeling at the back of my head, telling me that things might have been handled differently and should have been researched better…

message 7: by Jane (new) - added it

Jane Booklovinglady, I'm from England originally and also got plenty of WWII stories from my parents (who were children when the war started). I even remember that there were still bomb sites when I was a little kid - in the 60s, 20 years after the war ended, which means the economy had still not completely recovered by then!

I've no gripe against the American view of WWII (would we have won without them?) but I agree that there's a considerable lack of understanding about how conditions were for ordinary Europeans during the conflict. It was only when I read a remarkable social history of the war (pretty sure it was this one) that I realized just how devastated my parents' lives must have been (despite the remarkable fact that no-one in their large families was killed) and their stories all became much more tragic and alive to me. I got them to record their memories and transcribed them - I know the BBC has done a similar project lately with many elderly English people.

Jemidar The thing that always strikes me is just how bad conditions were even when the war was over and how long it took to rebuild. The suffering certainly didn't end with the war!

message 9: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Booklovinglady wrote: "But what rubbed me up the wrong way though, was the way the German occupation of Guernsey was described. (And believe me, I’m not at all sure I should try to explain my feelings here...)..."

I'm so so glad that you commented on your reaction to the novel, Booklovinglady, and I understand your reservations. Anyone who is only a generation removed from the direct personal experience of occupation by a foreign power and all that represents has a quite different and important perspective to bring to a narrative which deals with that issue.

I didn't take it that the author wanted to represent that conditions were worse in Guernsey during the German occupation than they were elsewhere in Europe. However, I take your point about her research. The very minor issue I raised about adoption laws brought home to me the problems with research. It seemed to me at the time that if the research was faulty on that one issue, it could just as easily be deficient in relation to others.

Overall, I think that this novel is rather too fluffy in concept and excecution to do justice to some of its themes. It has its good points, but the way in which the German occupation and its consequences are portrayed is not one of them.

message 10: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim Jane wrote: "I even remember that there were still bomb sites when I was a little kid - in the 60s, 20 years after the war ended, which means the economy had still not completely recovered by then!..."

Jane, I first went to England in the late 1960s when I was about twelve. I remember being on the train from Dover to London and seeing all the bombed-out sites along the railway line. My father explained the reason for this to me and I can still remember how struck I was. It was the closest I had been to the effects of a war about which I had heard no personal stories other than those of my grandfather who had been in the Army in Borneo.

I spent my teenage years in an area of Sydney which had at that time a high Jewish refugee population. Yiddish was the language other than English most commonly heard in the streets and you saw many people in the neighbourhood with concentration camp tatoos. Three-quarters of the students at my high school were the children or grandchildren of these refugees. That was when I started really hearing about what had happened during the war. However, I've always been aware that I'm several steps removed from the direct experience and my reactions are affected by that distance.

message 11: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm Hi Kim,

I also responded to the charm of the characters. I'm reading a new book by John Irving who also has a gift for creating memorable and unusual characters. There is something to be said for entering into these imaginary worlds. Somehow they seem more humane and I find that comforting.

SUSAN Great review, I really enjoyed this book as well.

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