Bonnie'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
Sep 07, 09

bookshelves: fiction, reviewed-books
Read in August, 2009, read count: 1

3 ½ stars

This novel is written from the heart, and at its heart, is a story about the love and power of books. As we learn within the first few pages: 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 the third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment. The story follows author Juliet Ashton, but revolves around Elizabeth McKenna, a character who never actually appears in the novel. A host of other characters populate the story, and their lives are altered by these women, by books, and by war.

During WWII, Juliet, a sentimental English woman, was a journalist of a sort, with a humourous column in the Spectator called Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. The collection of articles becomes a best-selling book, but now it is 1946, and Juliet wants to find a “real” story to write. Her London flat was bombed during the war, all of her books destroyed, but lo! a farmer – Mr. Dawsey Adams of Guernsey Island has one of the books she’d sold. Bought it second-hand, found her name and address on the inside cover, and could she please send him the name and address of a bookshop in London so that he might order more of 18th-century essayist Charles Lamb’s writings by post? And this is how Juliet finds her story – and far more than that – in an unlikely place: Guernsey Island, a British colony in the English Channel just off the coast of France.

Juliet fulfills Dawsey’s request, continues to correspond, and eventually exchanges letters amongst a number of people who live on the island, which had been under German occupation during the war. Most, but not all, belong to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a book club formed as a ruse by Elizabeth when she, Dawsey, and an inebriated John Booker, are returning home after an illegal roast pig dinner. It’s after curfew and Booker’s singing alerts the Nazi patrol. Spunky, quick-thinking Elizabeth faces Lugers aimed at her eyes, and without blinking, apologizes, and goes on to say that their Literary Society had been so engrossed in a delightful discussion of Elizabeth and Her German Garden that they’d lost all track of time. Since the Germans liked and encouraged book clubs, her scam worked for the night, but then they had to develop the society into an actual, active group.

This book is written in the epistolary style, which is appropriate for the period, and to the themes of reading and writing, although credulity was somewhat tested at times: the tricky part of writing a story in the form of letters is how to convey information without sounding contrived. The characters themselves are well-developed, but somehow it’s the sound of Juliet’s voice that seems to come across in the letters these people write.

Meanwhile, Juliet corresponds regularly with people who are near and dear to her, as well, including her publisher, Simon and his sister Sophie. There is also a not-altogether-convincing love interest happening between Juliet and a rich American publisher, Markham V. Reynolds, Jr. But Juliet is more interested in the people of Guernsey who have begun to write not only of books, but of their personal memories during five years of German rule. Very soon the tone of the letters changes to reflect deepening friendships, and when Juliet decides she wants to write about these friends’ stories, she leaves Mark despite his protestations, to whisk herself away to Guernsey.

It is in the second half of the book, when Juliet meets the people with whom she has corresponded, when the epistolary form no longer works as well – there’s too much plot that needs to be worked into the letters. Juliet writes to Sidney: Stories of Elizabeth are everywhere – not just among the Society members. Yes, we learn many stories about this heroic woman, who was sent to a prison camp in Europe for hiding a Nazi worker, who has yet to return, and who left behind 4-year-old Kit, the result of a love affair with a German soldier who was killed after leaving the island. Kit has been raised by Elizabeth’s friends until Juliet comes along.

I wanted to appreciate this elusive-but-very-present Elizabeth and her self-sacrificing acts during the war, but her “larger-than-life” character – as writers are advised to create – simply went too far: to me, her character became so saintly, it ceased to sound credible. And when Juliet bonds with Kit, we all know where the story is going.

It was shortly after this that I began to flip back pages and re-evaluate my original opinion of the book. The final flaw that repeatedly sent my eyelids rolling was how the witty, intelligent, and empathetic Juliet could be so blind about what was going on within herself and with Dawsey. Why, I wondered, is this story labeled historical fiction and not romance?

Now, having said all that, I have to say that I notched my rating up by a half star because I appreciated learning about Guernsey and its role in the war; how the islanders coped with the occupation by reading and discussing books they may otherwise never consider reading (as we do in Goodreads!); and some parts made me laugh out loud. Also, for some reason I became teary-eyed at this early introduction to Juliet’s character – she’s writing in response to a highly regarded member of the book club, a woman who wants assurance that Juliet’s request to write an article about the society will be serious:

Since you should know something about me, I have asked the Reverend Simon Simpless, of St. Hilda’s Church near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, to write to you. He has known me since I was a child and is fond of me. I have asked Lady Bella Taunton to provide a reference for me too. We were fire wardens together during the Blitz and she wholeheartedly dislikes me. Between the two of them, you may get a fair picture of my character.

I suppose I appreciated the honesty in those words. And I do believe that this book was intended to come across as a “feel-good” story. If so, even though the writing isn’t flawless, and the story might not change your life, I think the authors succeeded. Further, if Mary Ann Shaffer had lived to write another book, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up.

Actually, in the Afterword written by Shaffer’s niece, Annie Barrows, we learn that all her aunt had wanted was “to write a book that someone would like enough to publish.” This happened. “But then, just as if we were in some horrible retributive folk tale, the triumph turned, because Mary Ann’s health began to fail. When, shortly thereafter, the book’s editor requested some changes that required substantial rewriting, Mary Ann knew that she did not have the stamina to undertake the work, and she asked me if I would do it, on the grounds that I was the other writer in the family.” Annie did so, and I’m glad she did.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Marlene (new)

Marlene Interesting review as I too read the book and enjoyed it however I did not see the romance blooming between Juliet and Dawsey. If fact I felt that it came out too conveniently, wrapping things up in "nice" package. I'll have to re-read it to see if I see the signs second-time around. I enjoyed the epistolary style but do agree with you that it did get tricky at times and credibility is at stake. My book club is reading this book at present and I am anxious to hear the opinions of those readers.

Bonnie Sorry I haven't responded to you before this, Marlene - I have been away.

I no longer have the book (it was a library copy), but I'm pretty sure it wasn't until I'd read past the half-way mark that I picked up on indications that something was happening between Juliet and Dawsey. I remember thinking that the way it was done (I wish I had the book so that I could quote), reminded me of a teen/young-adult scenario. I definitely see how you felt that it came out "too conveniently, wrapping things up in a nice package", and I agree with that, too. That may sound contradictory, but I don't think so...

What I really want to say, though, is that I too, am anxious to hear the opinions of the readers in your book club! Have you since met and discussed the novel?

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