The Bottom Line: A warm and entertaining account of a reading group in the Channel ISlands during the WW2 occupation
If we are not to judge a book by its cover, does that include the title? Over the last few years there has been an obvious trend of very quirky and eye-catching titles (A History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Sunday Philosophy Club) among the bestseller lists and I must admit I have bought and read several novels just from the title alone. “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is the latest one to catch my eye with an unusual title; I hadn’t heard of the authors, nor had I read any reviews of the book. I just knew from the title I had to take a closer look.
The story is told through a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, an author living in London just after the end of the Second World War, and a group of Channel Islanders living in Guernsey. The correspondence begins when Juliet receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams who has become the owner of one of Juliet’s old books by Charles Lamb. Her address was inside the cover and, although the flat was levelled by a German bomb, the letter manages somehow to get to her. Dawsey is writing to Juliet to ask of she could give him the name of a bookseller who might be able to supply him with more books by Lamb because he is unable to get them on the Channel Islands. So begins a friendship based on a mutual love of Charles Lamb. However, when Dawsey describes how he and some fellow islanders formed a literary society to while away the long evenings during the German occupation of the island Juliet realises that this could be ideal material for her next book – an account of the German occupation of the islands told by the islanders themselves. She asks Dawsey to ask the other members of the society to write to her and they do so in varying styles and detail, explaining what they like to read and why, as well as their experiences during the war.
I found this book immediately engaging and thought that this was a brilliant way to tell the story from different points of view. I don’t usually enjoy books written as letters but this time it worked brilliantly. I really liked the way Juliet imagined what people would be like from their letters and wrote about this to her best friend and publisher. The islanders are quite different from Juliet; many of them had barely read at all before the occupation even though they were literate. They just didn’t have time as they were busying earning a living and looking after their islands gardens. Some of the book choices are quite comical and it the story could have become quite patronising but happily it isn’t; you really get a strong sense of how much the literary society meant to those involved.
The writing style is quite light and I found myself turning the pages with speed. I am sure there will those who dismiss this as chick lit masquerading as something more serious but I would argue that author Mary Ann Shaffer is not providing an account of the occupation of the island but a tale of a group of friends who found one way to try to shut out some of the misery of the war. A subplot of the book is a look at collaboration and this is done through an account of a romance between an islander and a German officer. Juliet hears that one of the islanders was sent to a labour camp on the mainland but only slowly pieces together the whole story.
It wouldn’t be right to describe the islanders in a review, it would spoil the joy of them gradually revealing themselves through their letters and yet more later on when Juliet goes out to Guernsey to do more work on the book. Suffice to say that the diversity of the characters gives the impression of a close community and keeps the pace of the story lively. While you couldn’t claim that it’s balanced, there is a little contrast from one character who writes to Juliet telling her that she should not get involved with a group of people that had no interest in literature before the war and don’t really understand it now.
I can’t say how historically accurate this account is. I know a little but not a great deal about the occupation of the Channel Islands during the war. In the book we get personal stories about how the occupation had an impact of everyday life. If you want facts and figures look for an academic text, this is pure entertainment. I did learn a lot that I didn’t know and thought there was a good balance between the story and the history.
The novel loses its way a little towards the end and the introduction of another subplot is at the heart of this; it isn’t necessary and it only prolongs the inevitable ending that has been in the offing since quite early on in the story. Nonetheless I loved this book and didn’t want it to end. Had it been twice as long I would still have relished every exchange of letters; reading each one I felt as excited as I did years ago when I had pen-friends in other countries. (Someone from the Royal Mail ought to read this book to see how quickly letters moved in those days!)
Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who enjoys good character based fiction really; and the historical aspect is sure to appeal to readers with an interest in the Second World War. I think it would even be a good text for students studying the period for GSCE as it gives a good insight into civilian life not just under the occupation but in the city, and after the war too.
The author Mary Ann Shaffer was an American who died just before the book was published. In the 1970s she visited London and it was then she became interested in Guernsey, her interest sparked by a book about the occupation of another Channel Island, Jersey. Some years later her own literary society encouraged her to write a novel and she remembered Guernsey and used this as her inspiration. Sadly she became quite ill before the novel was quite finished and her niece Annie Barrows finished it, hence the credit to two authors. It was the only book Shaffer ever wrote. I was really impressed by the way Shaffer captured quite perfectly the different worlds of the close knit island community and, in contrast, post war London. The characters rang true; I thought the portrait of Juliet in particular was brilliant and I was surprised how well Shaffer picked up on the finer details of a young privileged woman living in London at the time.
The only disappointment is that this will be the only work by Mary Ann Shaffer. I would have loved to have read more. 256 pages
I had heard people talking about this book ever since it was published--countless people I know had read it and loved it--so I bought it; but then I found myself passing it by on my TBR (to be read) shelf time and time again because I wasn't sure it was my cup of tea (as it turns out, I misunderstood what the book was about from the descriptions I was given). Then I met a new friend and neighbor and she kept at me about it, saying I must read it. FINALLY, after close to two years gathering dust … more
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is a charming epistolary novel (for those of you who forgot your high school English terms, that means that the book is a series of letters) but perhaps too charming. In the novel, a young, unmarried British writer named Juliet has found success with a series of newspaper columns during WWII. Now (in 1946) the columns are compiled as a book and she's even more successful. As she searches for a new topic to tackle, … more
Okay, that’s definitely a long title. It’s also a perfect title for a perfectly entertaining, intriguing and informative love story, world war II drama, and mystery with a twist. The twist is that the story’s told entirely in letters between the characters. The wonder is it works so perfectly. A writer looking for a book idea after wartime success finds herself accidentally corresponding with people who’ve lived through the German occupation … more
When my mother recommended this book to me, I took a look at the cover quotes and found myself immediately skeptical. Phrases like "New York Times Bestseller" and a recommendation from the author of "Eat Pray Love" don't always lend themselves as a marker of a mindful read. However, after giving it a chance I was pleasantly surprised. This novel explores the experiences of a collection of characters in both Guernsey and England and their coping mechanisms … more
I admit; this was a hard book to get into. It is written in a series of letters between the main character (Juliette, if I remember right), and her publisher Sydney, plus many others, most of whom are members of a literary society that was formed by an unlikely group of people thrown together by events during WWII, on the Channel Island of Guernsey. This book has it all: romance, suspense, humor, horror. Once I got used to the manner of writing, I loved reading how each character … more
Poverty and suffering are AWESOME, apparently. I threw the book into the wall when the author used the word "random" to mean "unexpected," in her faux-period letters, a meaning that emerged in the computer age. I give this book a big fat *fart sound*.
Pros: Literary; entertaining; excellent character development; not formulaic; exquisite audio rendition. Cons: Irreverent and immoral in places; unrealistic ending; pacing concerns; similar styles among characters. The Bottom Line: Reading this book will help you discuss both tragedy and whimsy using a British accent--unless you already have one. In that case, this work may prove disappointingly inaccurate. Dear Readers, … more
The year is 1946, and British writer Juliet is feeling restless. She wants to write something new but doesn't know what. As luck would have it, she receives a letter from a Guernsey man and a pen-friendship develops. He tells her about the island literary society and its unusual history, and before she knows it she is corresponding with all the members and planning to visit them in person. Written entirely as a series of letters between Juliet and her friends, this book … more