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 tells 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.
[taken from back cover]
Though its title may be a bit of a challenge to get through, the story of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is certainly not. Written almost entirely through letters, Juliet Ashton and the people of Guernsey’s book club immediately feel like your friends and, over the course of the novel, remind us of the power of books, reading and escapism.
Interestingly, this story is told in an epistolary form – that is, through letters. Though a rather unconventional format for a novel these days, Shaffer said that “for some bizarre reason, [she] thought it would be easier that way” (vii). I really enjoyed experiencing the story through the characters’ letters to one another. It is instantly more personal and intimate than if the story had been told through a narrator. We, as readers, really get to know each of the characters well through their written interactions with each other. The structure also quickens the pace of the novel and means that the plot develops fairly swiftly, with each letter spanning a few pages at most. As a result, and I mean this as a compliment, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a really easy read.
In saying all of this, the epistolary form does come with some limitations, the main one for me being that everything conveyed in the novel is a swift recounting of past events. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that most of the events of the novel are depicted concisely and after the fact, largely without dialogue or too much detail. The story often jumps hastily from one letter to the next.. For example, upon her long-awaited arrival in Guernsey, Juliet writes to her publisher, Sidney. She concludes with “what a long letter – and it only contains the first four hours of the twenty [since her arrival]. You’ll have to wait for the other sixteen” (152). We never get the other sixteen. Again, not always a bad thing but it did often leave me wanting more.
As a result of the novel being written in letters, the characters become much more important than the plot in this story. I really came to feel as though I knew the characters, and, until she actually arrives in Guernsey, we readers do, in fact, know the members of the literary society just as well as Juliet – knowing only as much as she does through the letters they have written to her. Juliet herself is incredibly compelling. Any character who throws a teapot at a “loathsome” journalist’s head and who ends an engagement because her fiancé moves her beloved books into the basement to make room for his athletic trophies is, as far as I’m concerned, pretty brilliant. The characters living in Guernsey are just as beautifully drawn and the result is a novel brimming with a wonderful mix of personalities which, combined with the terrible events of WWII, make for a story that is both uplifting and heartbreaking, often at the same time.
Ultimately, Shaffer’s novel is an exploration of the importance and power of books, reading and escapism. During the German occupation of Guernsey in WWII, the book club meetings became something of a refuge.
We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another. Other Islanders asked to join us, and our evenings together became bright, lively times – we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside (48).
Aside from a love of books and reading, the meetings brought these people together in a time when company and solidarity were needed most.
The power of books to bring people together is also illustrated through Juliet and Dawsey, who begin their correspondence and become acquainted only through their shared love of a particular book; The Selected Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb. Without Charles Lamb’s book Dawsey would not have written to Juliet and, by extension, Juliet would not have met all of the people in Guernsey who, by the end of the novel, she considers among her closest friends. Charles Lamb is also a commonality between Dawsey and Christian, a German soldier he befriends during the occupation, writing to Juliet how he sometimes thinks “of Charles Lamb and marvel[s] that a man born in 1775 enabled [him] to make two such friends as [her] and Christian” (92).
Books are shown to bridge both location and race (which is no small during wartime), bringing people together and spreading hope.
I would highly recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows if you enjoy historical fiction, particularly relating to WWII, and stories about books and reading.
If you have read it, I’d love to know what you thought so please feel free to comment with what you liked or didn’t like about the book.
Thanks for reading!
Leave a Reply