The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, 2008
Though you've likely already heard this from many other people by this point, I must add my voice to the chorus: this is a really lovely book. It is funny, sweet, moving, and sometimes deeply sad. I think one of the things I appreciated most about it, though, was how the humour and healing were injected after the darkest moments; the dark parts were not glossed over, but they were moved past once they'd had their time. Some of the story seems a little improbable; I don't know how closely it follows what really happened on Guernsey and the other Channel Islands during the war, but I imagine many of the facts about life in an occupied territory were quite closely observed. I also imagine that some of the people during the Occupation handled themselves with the grace and aplomb of the Literary Society.
Juliet is the author of a successful series of humour columns, published throughout the war (World War II) under a pen name. She's working her way through a book tour now that the war is over, and stressing over what to write next. Simply put, this is the story, told in letters, telegrams, and a few journal entries, of how Juliet finds her next book topic. Underneath, it's a story of survival and grace under terrible conditions, of love of reading and literature, of how reaching out to strangers can have unexpected and wonderful consequences. It's also a story of a community grieving and trying to heal itself after deep hurts have been inflicted upon it.
The writing is skillful. I have come to the conclusion that I am extremely predisposed to like epistolary novels, but it's not always easy to give a full sense of character through letters only, or a full sense of plot without it coming off as contrived. Books that do it, and do it well, make me so happy. This one -- it's like unwrapping a gift. I prefer the slower storyline and reveal in an epistolary novel versus a regular novel, because in the regular novel I'm far more likely to become impatient with a slower pace. With letters, I'm happy to follow wherever the writer wishes to take me.
It's not so hard with these characters, as charming and full as they are. I dearly liked Juliet, and I missed many of the Society's letters when (small spoiler!) Juliet makes it to Guernsey. I was impressed with how large and diverse the cast of characters was, and how I was able to keep track of who was who and probably would have been able to even without names attached. They had distinctive voices and styles.
My only complaint is that there is one point, near the very end, when we switch from letters to a secondary character's journal, and I would much have preferred to see the events from the point of view of the participants themselves. So I was quite disappointed, but I think I understand how difficult it might have been to contrive for Juliet, for example, to have written about the events in a letter.
Overall, a really gentle and lively book, well worth its accolades. Very glad to have read it. Recommended to fans of war stories who are not really fans of gore; also for those who like epistolary novels, humour, and a slightly slower pace to their story.