Monday, January 19, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I was attracted to this book because of its unusual moniker. I know you're not necessary supposed to judge a book by its title or cover, but I did with this one, and I didn't regret it. It is a lovely, lovely book.

It all takes place in 1946, starting off in London, which is just beginning to recover from the disasterous effects of World War II and the German Occupation. Juliet Ashton is a young woman who has just had her first book published, a collection of columns that she wrote for the London Times. Juliet wrote the columns to provide a humorous look at war, and were so successful, that they were collected into a book, and led to her first book tour. We meet our heroine, exhausted from the tour and the publicity she received. Her publisher has now set her to task for finding subject matter for her follow-up book.

Juliet is out of ideas for her second book, and is suffering from writer's block, depression, and a broken engagement when she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams, who resides on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. Dawsey owns a book that Juliet once owned, Selected Essays of Elia, written by Charles Lamb. Juliet's name and address were written inside, and Dawsey writes her a letter, thanking her for the book and writing raves about his love for Charles Lamb.

This unusual letter begins a correspondence, not only between Juliet and Dawsey, but among other members of Dawsey's book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This group didn't originally start out as a book club, but rather, as an alibi meant to protect its members when they were caught breaking the curfew imposed by the Germans. Guernsey was under German occupation during the war, and Juliet comes to learn, through the letters she receives from various members of the Literary Society, that the island and its inhabitants suffered greatly.

Juliet becomes quickly attached to the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and eventually accepts an invitation to visit Guernsey. She finds the citizens to be even lovelier in person than they are in their letters. The members of the society are quite eccentric, to say the least, but they are characters to whom you will grow attached.

But it's not just the eccentricities of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that draw you into the book; it's the suffering that they have suffered through the war that makes you feel compassion towards them. There's Eli, now a young man, who was one of the children shipped off the island when the Germans invaded, and whose parents died before his return. There's John Booker, who was sent to a concentration camp after he was discovered impersonating another man. Then there's Kit, the young daughter of a founding member of the Society, whose mother died in a concentration camp.

Kit's mother, Elizabeth, figures prominently into the story. She was the once who concocted the alibi that led to the founding of the Society. But as Juliet discovers, she did much more than that, and had a profound, lasting impact on the Guernsey residents in many, many different ways.

Juliet originally went over to Guernsey to do research for her second book, as well as an article she was commissioned to write for the Times of London. But as her stay lengthens, the Society becomes a family to her, and her bond with them grows. She may even be falling in love...

This book is a rather quick read. It is written entirely in the form of exchanged letters, which can be annoying at times, but it still makes for some very good reading. Sometimes, although rarely, can you distinguish the writing styles of the different authors of the letters, but you can't get a flavor of the letter writers themselves through their writing styles. The character development comes out in the letters themselves, not by the authors' tone.

The backstory to this book is just as touching. Mary Ann Shaffer had originally traveled to England to research another book when she took a side trip to Guernsey. She was so inspired by the history and beauty of the island that she decided to write a totally different book altogether. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had just been accepted for publication when Ms. Shaffer fell ill, and her niece, Annie Barrows, had to finish the book for her. Sadly, Ms. Shaffer did not live to see her work in published form.

Overall, this book was a very poignant, sweet read, one that makes you believe in human nature again. It's so touching to see how the residents of Guernsey come together to help each other during the war, and beyond. That feeling alone put a smile on my face.

This was the second book I reviewed for my 100+ Reading Challenge. To keep up with the latest, or my past reads, click on the button in the sidebar.


Anonymous said...

Sounds very interesting. Yeah, reading letters would probably wear on me after awhile. I'd probably have trouble keeping track of whose letter I was reading!

PS You are hilarious...telling me I was a scrubbing bubble in a past life....LOL!

Anonymous said...

Love books that give you that feeling! I wonder if this would make an awesome audio book?

Becky Workman said...

I'm listening to this book now. I'm having a little trouble getting into it, but it's early. I appreciated your review...I'll try to stick with it!

Kitten said...

Yaya: I had inadvertently bought the large print version, so that may have led me to have some trouble with keeping track. An audio version may have also helped matters.

J.Kaye: Your answer to the audio version is in the third comment. :)

Becky: Stick with it! The characters will really grow on gets a lot better after Juliet makes the trip to Guernsey.
P.S. What do you think of the audio version?