Friday, November 29, 2013
"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
“ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.
Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
For some time near the beginning, I'd considered abandoning this book, and later on, found myself wondering whether or not to give it five stars. That was how drastically my opinion changed while I was reading it.
The story is entirely made up of letters between the characters. The time period is 1946, just after the second World War, and the setting is Guernsey, an island in the English Channel. It's almost impossible to give a quick plot summary, but I'll try. Juliet Ashton, a London based writer, is urged by her publisher to begin a new project but she's having trouble coming up with anything. She begins corresponding with members of a literary society in Guernsey. It turns out not many of them were really interested in reading books at the start, but they were caught by the Germans after a clandestine pork roast dinner, which could have had them in big trouble, and made up a lie that they'd been having a literary society meeting. Then, they decided they'd better form an actual book club, just to be on the safe side, to give substance to their ruse. From then on, they were each amazed by the pleasure they derived from books, and wrote to Juliet all about it.
My initial impression was that it plodded on too slowly at first, and a whole lot of characters were introduced too thick and fast to keep track of and keep up the interest level at the same time. It really grew on me as I decided the anecdotes about living during the time of German occupation make a fantastic legacy for present day readers. I'm a member of Gen X, and felt as if I was right there, sharing the experiences which were sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking.
There are two heroines. Apart from the witty, feisty Juliet, there's Elizabeth McKenna. She's an unusual character in that she only appears in reminiscences and never in person, yet in many ways the book is all about her. We can learn a lot from her attitude of kindness and the impression her simple gestures made on others. I liked how their stories came together, and Juliet's decision that they had a lot in common, because they were both 'noticers' of simple, beautiful things that others might have just passed by.
Good characters soon begin to stand out from the rest of the huge cast. There's Dawsey Adams, the shy, stuttering pig farmer with highbrow literary tastes (he was gorgeous), Mrs Amelia Maugery, who probably looked more beautiful at 60 than she did at 20, Isola Priddy, the eccentric herbalist who developed a taste for the Brontes and Jane Austen, Sidney Stark, Juliet's generous editor, and John Booker, the servant who got away with impersonating his employer, who'd flown the coop. This is just scratching the surface. It's easy to see why this book became something of an obsessive life work for Mary Ann Shaffer, before her death.
It left me with a lot to think about. These days, we expend such a lot of angst wondering how to make an impact and achieve something notable. Back then, people were too busy simply trying to get by from day to day, keeping food on their tables and clothes on their backs, an achievement in itself. It's clear that love, loyalty and friendship really are the most important things. This is just as true now, but we can easily overlook that in the easier times we live in.
The book is full of quotable wisdom, and I'll finish this review with a good one. "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive-all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society available from Amazon