I had been drawn to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows a number of times on my frequent visits to the bookstore, but never did buy it. I recently borrowed it on the recommendation of a colleague, and I have to say that I was quite impressed!
The novel is based in London in 1946, after the end of World War II. The protagonist – Juliet Ashton – is a writer who has spent the war writing humorous columns for The Spectator. She receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who lives in the island of Guernsey and who has, by chance, got her old copy of Charles Lamb’s essays. One letter leads to another and Juliet learns of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was established by chance during the war. Now, most book clubs are set up by people who love reading and discussing books – but not this one. It was set as a spur-of-the-moment invention by the resourceful Elizabeth McKenna, who offered it as an explanation to the Germans when she and a group of her friends were found to have broken the curfew.
Through her correspondence with Dawsey, Juliet learns about the troubles the islanders faced during the war. Encouraged by Dawsey, the rest of the book club members begin writing to Juliet to share their thoughts on books, the war, the deprivation and the daily struggle to survive. The second half of the book, when Juliet eventually makes her way to the island/s to gather material for a new, more serious, book brings out more of the plot and the eccentricities of the characters.
The most amazing part about the novel is that it is told entirely through the (fictional) correspondence between Juliet and various other people – the islanders; Sophie, her best friend and Sophie’s brother and Juliet’s publisher Sideny; and Mark V Reynolds, an American tycoon who falls in love with Juliet. Through those letters, Mary Ann Shaffer explores some of the darker aspects of the war, such as the cruelty and even humanity of some German soldiers, the moral dilemma that arose between people forced to try and survive alongside the enemy, and the horrors of the concentration camps. Those letters help to create characters that you come to love and understand – their shortcomings and motivations, their lives and loves, their passions and convictions.
Overall, this is a delightful novel – funny, moving and told in a very different manner.
Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you thought of it!