Friday, October 29, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, 2008
274 pages

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.


Stephanie said...

It's tough to review a book that's already been discussed a lot, but you did beautifully. This is a lovely review. I loved this: "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."

Marg said...

I read this book a couple of years ago, and like you loved it a lot!

Nice review!

Ana S. said...

I am now extra happy that I picked up a copy of this the other day :)

Libby Cone said...

I enjoyed your review of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," and I wondered if you would like to look at my book, "War on the Margins." It's about the Island of Jersey during the German occupation (Yes, I inadvertently wrote the "prequel" to the Guernsey book). The Surrealist artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were Resistance propagandists on the Island, and figure prominently in the book. "War on the Margins" started life as a self-published work and was then picked up by a publisher after being championed by UK bloggers. The UK and Canadian paperback has just been released, and the title has been nominated for the People's Book Prize . Please let me know if you are interested in receiving a copy for review.

Unknown said...

Stephanie - Thanks! It is always a little intimidating, especially when what I have to say is essentially the same as everyone else.

Marg - Thanks you!

Nymeth - Heh, I think you will really like this one. It's got a lot more going on than it seems on the surface. Plus: epistolary! Though, perhaps I should try not to build up your expectations too high...

Libby Cone - I really appreciate the offer, but for reasons that have everything to do with my own personal reading and reviewing neuroses, I don't accept books from authors, either for review or even just to read. I did it once and it was so stressful for me that I vowed to never do it again. That said, thank you for bringing your book to my attention! I will keep an eye out for it, because it sounds like something I would be interested in reading at some point. Best of luck with it!