- Author: Mary Ann Shaffer
- File Size: 2262 KB
- Print Length: 257 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; 1 edition (May 10, 2009)
- Publication Date: May 10, 2009
- Language: English
The beloved, life-affirming international bestseller which has sold over 5 million copies worldwide – now a major film starring Lily James, Matthew Goode, Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton
To give them hope she must tell their story.
It’s 1946. The war is over, and Juliet Ashton has writer’s block. But when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey – a total stranger living halfway across the Channel, who has come across her name written in a second hand book – she enters into a correspondence with him, and in time with all the members of the extraordinary Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Through their letters, the society tell Juliet about life on the island, their love of books – and the long shadow cast by their time living under German occupation. Drawn into their irresistible world, Juliet sets sail for the island, changing her life forever.
The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet’s name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book’s epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories. The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incident—including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupation—and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed. But Juliet’s quips are so clever, the Guernsey inhabitants so enchanting and the small acts of heroism so vivid and moving that one forgives the authors (Shaffer died earlier this year) for not being able to settle on a single person or plot. Juliet finds in the letters not just inspiration for her next work, but also for her life—as will readers.
“Traditional without seeming stale, and romantic without being naïve” (San Francisco Chronicle), this epistolary novel, based on Mary Ann Shaffer’s painstaking, lifelong research, is a homage to booklovers and a nostalgic portrayal of an era. As her quirky, loveable characters cite the works of Shakespeare, Austen, and the Brontës, Shaffer subtly weaves those writers’ themes into her own narrative. However, it is the tragic stories of life under Nazi occupation that animate the novel and give it its urgency; furthermore, the novel explores the darker side of human nature without becoming maudlin. The Rocky Mountain News criticized the novel’s lighthearted tone and characterizations, but most critics agreed that, with its humor and optimism, Guernsey “affirms the power of books to nourish people during hard times”
I’ve always had to wonder when I read a novel comprised entirely of letters. I think, well, it’s either going to be very, very good or will peter out after the second chapter and become tedious, repetitive, and boring.
I’m happy to say that “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer falls definitely into the former and not the latter category. It is very, very good, and (if I had to assess why) it’s because Shaffer tells a story and stays in command of the story to the very end. And the story itself is a dramatic one and based upon a recent historic event – the occupation of the Channel Islands by the German army during World War II.
The Channel Islands lie just off the coast of France but have allegiance to Great Britain. Technically, they are not part of Great Britain, but their inhabitants sound (to an American ear) as British as any Briton. They were owned by Duke William of Normandy, who retained ownership after he invaded and won Britain in 1066.
Because of the proximity to France, the British Army and Navy couldn’t defend the islands, so they became as much German-occupied territory as France and the rest of Europe. Their people were treated much the same as the rest of Europe. Which means very badly indeed.
But it’s now 1946, and writer Juliet Ashton, fresh from a rather surprising success as the author of a collection of her funny wartime columns for the Spectator, is casting about for a new project. She’s previously written a biography of Anne Bronte, which wasn’t exactly a bestseller. So, the success of her collection of columns is welcome news indeed.
Juliet receives a letter from a Guernsey resident named Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer interested in, of all things, the 19th century writer Charles Lamb. He has come to own a book of Lamb’s writings originally owned by Juliet (her name and former London address – bombed by a V2 rocket late in the war – is written in the inside cover. She begins a correspondence with Mr. Adams, and soon finds herself writing to other members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a reading group formed rather hurriedly (as in, on the spot) when the Germans found a group of Guernsey residents out after curfew.
In London, Juliet finds herself being amorously and rather relentlessly pursued by a wealthy American, but she isn’t sure if she’s interested or not. So a trip to Guernsey is just the ticket to work on a book and escape the would-be lover. And it is on Guernsey that Juliet discovers but never meets the founder of the society, Catherine McKenna, whose story becomes a story of the war, how people survived the occupation, and how they didn’t.
Shaffer, who worked as an editor and librarian and also in bookshops, died in 2008. The novel was completed by her niece, Annie Barrows, the author of the “Ivy & Bean” and other children’s stories and the novel “The Truth According to Us” (2015). And while I want to tell you that you always want to see an author enjoy a well-deserved success, there is something about all of this that fits the author’s story and the story she tells.
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” will make you laugh and make you cry. You will be struck silent at times. You will see how people cope in horrible circumstances, and what they to do help (and hurt) each other. And you will learn the difference books can make (including being used for kindling, but that’s another story for another letter).
Oh, before I forget, the book’s been made into a movie of the same title, coming soon (I hope) to a theater near you! It stars Lily James (of Downton Abbey and Darkest Hour fame) as Juliet, and there are several other Downton Abbey stars in it.
I forgot how much fun it is to read good, old-fashioned correspondence. These letters, especially the ones written by the central character, are jaunty, naughty, full of personality and spunk. Her response to a dinner invitation, for example, is “Yes, dinner with pleasure. I’ll wear my new dress and eat like a pig.”
Pigs end up playing a major role in this wonderful little book when the author connects with some villagers on Guernsey Island, who have recently emerged from German occupation during World War II. She learns how they outsmarted the Germans, who were fussy over farm animals, according to one explanation of how The Guernsey Literary Society came about in the first place. Spoiler alert: it was because of pigs.
Their mischievous pig roast compelled them to keep up appearances as the literary society they indeed were not. Yet, as one of the inciters of the pig roast writes, “Once two members read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight.” Their original naughtiness eventually morphed into a sweet band of friends who “read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.”
The characters are vivid and easy to love, like the characters in Foyle’s War and 84 Charring Cross Road, carrying on despite the undertow of war rumbling beneath them. The writing delighted me, because so much of it made the familiar, ordinary things of life fresh and beautiful and fun (like when the author confesses really like to leave London to live on Guernsey instead). She writes, “The only thing I’d truly miss about London are Sidney and Susan, the nearness to Scotland, new plays, and Harrods Food Hall.” Refreshing: a little bit naughty, a little bit spice. My favorite line in the whole book is her contention that, “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”