The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is another one of those books that languished on my to-be-read list. The book is so popular that it was always out at my library. When I went to the Random House Readers Circle tea in May, they gave us the most wonderful bag of swag, and The Guernsey Literary was one of the books I took home. I finally picked it up the other day, after my library book queue had dwindled down, and I am kicking my own arse for not pushing to read it sooner. This is a beautiful story of community and love of people and of books, and I was left with a feeling of warmth that still remains with me three days later.
The book is written in epistolary form and tells the story of Juliet, an author who gained some fame during World War II by writing a darkly humorous column for a London newspaper. Just as Juliet is casting about for something new and a bit more serious to write about, she receives a letter from Dawsey, a man who lives on Guernsey and who got her old address from a used copy of essays by Charles Lamb. He mentions a literary society that he and other islanders formed during the war to help cope with the German occupation, and Juliet has to learn more. Soon, she’s communicating with practically the entire island, and when she thinks there might be able to use their experiences in her new book, Juliet decides to visit Guernsey for herself, not knowing that she’ll be thoroughly embraced by the people and that she’ll learn things about their lives during the war that will tie her to the island forever.
There is so much about this book that is so wonderful. First is the subject matter. I knew a bit about the occupation of Guernsey and Jersey, not from the numerous history classes I took for my degree, but from watching episodes of Antiques Roadshow on BBC! The authors are right that this part of history often gets lost, and they did a great job of educating readers while putting a human spin on the whole experience. There were many times where I just stopped and thought how close the Germans were to mainland England, and how frightening that was. And the passages about the bombing of the island and the evacuation of the children were heartbreaking.
Second, this book celebrates how a shared passion can get a group of people through even the darkest of times. Mary Ann Shaffer says in the acknowledgments that she intended the message to extend over all the arts, but this story is really about the power of reading, and as someone who was once a book club member and who bonds with people all over the internet with a shared love of books, AND who wants to work with books for the rest of her life, I can say that I’ve experienced that power, and it was incredible to read about it.
But the true heart of this story is the characters. These people are so different and so quirky and so real, and it’s a joy to see things through their eyes. By the end of the book, you want to know the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and you want to know how to secure a membership for yourself.
My mother did point out one thing that might frustrate readers about this book, and that is that it might end a little abruptly for some. I felt that all loose ends were tied up and that the authors revealed all they needed to reveal and that all that was left to do was finish the story, but I can see how others might wish to know a bit more.
The bittersweet note to this is that Mary Ann Shaffer passed away before she could experience the success of this book. I’m so glad that she told this story, and now I really want to make a trip to Guernsey and see the place that inspired her so much.
And, very fittingly, it was just announced today that Kenneth Branagh might direct the film!