In the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Juliet Ashton had begun writing a lighthearted newspaper column during WWII under the name Izzy Bickertstaff. Her editors thought the country needed a bit of humor and uplift. After the war, the columns were collected and published as a book, making Juliet and her publishers a lot of money.
But now the war is over, and Juliet wants to write something more meaningful under her own name. She’s not sure what, though, until she receives a note from someone on Guernsey named Dawsey who had somehow ended up with a book she had given away about Charles Lamb. During WWII, Guernsey and surrounding Channel islands were occupied by the Germans. Most of the children were evacuated off the island, and for five years the island didn’t have contact with the outside world. As the island had been isolated during the war and no booksellers had come back yet, Dawsey can’t find other books by or about Lamb, and he wonders if she might have access to some. In their correspondence, he mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Understandably curious, Juliet asks to know more about the society. It was invented one night when a few neighbors out after curfew were stopped and questioned by a guard (why they were out was another interesting story). One of them made up on the spot the literary society that they had supposedly just come from and even mentioned a German book. Thankfully the guard was a literary type and let them go. But now they had to implement such a society to avoid suspicion, so they began to meet regularly to discuss books they were reading. Some of the members were not avid readers, but they found at least one book to read and talk about.
The more Juliet hears, the more she feels maybe this is what she needs to write about. The book is made of of correspondence mostly between Juliet and her publisher, a few friends, and the various members of the society.
Some of their stories are comical, some are poignant, others are quite sad. Some were helped by the books they read; others were helped more by the camaraderie and community. And a fair bit of drama occurs in Juliet’s life as well, and her life changes in several ways she could not have predicted.
It seemed like everyone was talking about this book a few years ago, and I had always intended to read it “someday.” When I saw a film was being made of the book, I decided now was the time. I have not seen the film yet, but I knew I wanted to read the book first.
Epistolary novels are not my favorite form of story, but it works for this novel. You would have thought that it would be hard to “show rather than tell” through letters, which are a way of telling. But Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows, do this masterfully.
Unfortunately there is a smattering of bad words, including the Lord’s name taken in vain. There are no sexual scenes, but one woman has a baby out of wedlock, a couple of men are characterized as homosexual, and mention is made of women who fraternize with the Germans sexually.
But the characters are charming, and I love the way the story unfolds. I hated to see the story come to an end.
I’ve read much WWII fiction, but nothing that I can recall from this period of recovery just after the war. Amid the joy and relief of the war ending and the Germans retreating, there were still shortages, missing people who had been sent off to camps, buildings defaced or marred by Germans who had taken them over, not to mention the emotional trauma many carried with them for a long while afterward.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by a number of people. At first it was a little hard to distinguish between some of the characters, but after a while I got them straight. I ordered the book as well, and it contains a wonderful afterword by Annie Barrows. Most of the book was written by Mary Ann Shaffer, but her health began to fail during the rewrites, and she asked Annie to step in. Evidently Mary Ann had always been a wonderful storyteller, and the family was so pleased that her work was received so well.
I’ll close with a few of my favorite quotes:
That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.
All my life I thought that the story was over when the hero and heroine were safely engaged — after all, what’s good enough for Jane Austen ought to be good enough for anyone. But it’s a lie. The story is about to begin, and every day will be a new piece of the plot.
Because there is nothing I would rather do than rummage through bookshops, I went at once to Hastings & Sons Bookshop upon receiving your letter. I have gone to them for years, always finding the one book I wanted – and then three more I hadn’t known I wanted.
Your questions regarding that gentleman are very delicate, very subtle, very much like being smacked in the head with a mallet…it’s a tuba among the flutes.
Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)