“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”
A novel in the form of letters? I admit it wasn’t much of an appeal to me at first. After it has maintained its position on the New York Times Bestseller List for months, and now the trade paperback holding the first spot there, I just can’t resist anymore.
The book begins with a series of letters between a London writer Juliet Ashton and her friend and publisher Sydney Stark shortly after WWII. Later, upon receiving a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey of the Channel Islands, Juliet starts to correspond with the charming folks living there.
So how does the book title come about? Guernsey Island was occupied by the Germans during the war. It happens that one night after a secret ‘pig out’, a few Guernsey residents are found breaking the curfew. To find an excuse quickly when confronted by German soldiers, Elizabeth, our heroine, makes up the story that she and her fellow members have to leave a literary society meeting late as they’ve been so immersed in a German book.
This impromptu excuse soon takes shape in reality. Thus begins the odyssey of reading, book discussions, and the members’ correspondences with Juliet Ashton. Juliet is so immersed in their lives and moved by their situation that she later decides to go visit them, making the Guernsey Literary Society the subject of her next book.
Many of the letters are poignant descriptions of lives during the difficult war years. The Guernsey residents have to suffer the searing pain of evacuating their own children to England for safety, seeing the young and healthy sent to war, finding others just disappear to concentration camps, and hearing eye witness accounts of heroic sacrifices for utter strangers. While all these years on the Island, they have to endure deprivation of food, basic necessities, and freedom. But the literary society meetings and the few reading materials in their possession remain their lifeline to humanity and dignified living.
“Everyone was sickly from so little nourishment and bleak from wondering if it would ever end. We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”
Author Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in February 2008 and was succeeded by her niece Annie Barrows in finishing the novel. In the Acknowledgment, Shaffer had written these words in December 2007:
“I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art — be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music — enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”
Despite the subject matter, readers will find the book witty and delightful. Authors Shaffer and Barrows have depicted a myriad of lively characters, charmingly joined in their humanity by their strengths and weaknesses. Yes, we can also visualize the madness of war. But we’re relieved to see too that people can weather hardship much better when they have a common bond, here, in the reading and sharing of fine literary works. Mind you, these are not your academics and scholars. The Guernsey residents are mainly pig farmers and vegetable growers. As we read their letters, we soon see them as friends, Amelia, Dawsey, Isola, Eben, Eli, Elizabeth and little Kit…
And, am I such a Jane Austen fan that I’m seeing this: Juliet Ashton (J.A.), Dawsey (Darcy), and Elizabeth, beloved heroine of all time.
What impresses me most is that the Guernsey Islanders are so willing to open their hearts and lives to writer Juliet, an absolute stranger, mainly because of their common love of the written words. They find it an honor to be able to correspond with a real life writer, pouring their hearts out in respect and admiration, and quickly confiding in her. A writer as a celebrity and friend? It’s just fiction, you may say. But, why can’t it be real?
As for the art of letter writing, has it been lost as some have claimed, or has it merely been transformed into … yes, blogging, for example? Because as I was reading the book, it flashed by me at times that I was reading some blog posts. Are the writings that we post in the blogosphere a kind of open letter? Our exchanges in the comment box our correspondences? And, to push it a bit further, the telegram of old the early form of twitter?
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition, 2009, 288 pages.
Click here to go to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society website. As for the potato peel pie recipe, yes, at the Jane Austen Society of North America website.
14 thoughts on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”
I think I have to pick this one up. Thanks for sharing and also you have some great movies featured on your site. Loved Man on Wire – good
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I enjoyed this book. It is charming (the letters have a lot to do with that), but for me its main appeal was the presentation of an aspect of WWII that I had never considered: the occupation of the Channel Islands. The gentle tone of the book belies the true terror that the real Guernsey-ites must have experienced, and that is touched on here. To live with that uncertainty, that dread on a daily basis underscores the deep courage shown by those who “only” sat and waited…Lovely review, Arti–thank you!
I agree with you about the gentle tone, or even delightful mood covering a haunting experience. I think that’s what makes the book effective and affective. Remember the film ‘Life Is Beautiful’? It’s the humor that makes it so poignant and moving. Thanks for sharing.
I’m tempted to get this book now. Thanks for your review.
Considering you’re one of the few nowadays who still write cards and letters, I’m sure you’ll really enjoy this book.
Your write-up is beautifully written and makes the book sound intriguing.
I especially like your connection with JA – of course!
About blogging and letter writing – that makes sense to me too. I write regular (not as regular as I’d like) emails with a very few friends. One is the future mother-in-law of my daughter (3 weeks from today!). We share family stories, especially about our children who will soon be married. It takes time, time I don’t always think I have. But I feel richer. Hand writing is almost impossible for me now for anything longer than a short note. And it’s probably because of too much time on the computer! I am on it all day at work, I have carpal tunnel, and letter writing is shabby now. But the written word is so beautiful. Anyway, yes blogging. I like to think of it as letter writing or sitting in a salon with knitting needles clicking.
Thanks for getting me musing this morning.
I must thank you for taking the time to stop by, read, and leave your comment in a most busy time for you, preparing for your daughter’s wedding. And Congratulations! I envy you in that you can correspond with your future in-law, sharing stories, enriching a relationship that doesn’t start with the wedding day, but before it. I’m particularly impressed by your line: “But I feel richer.” How meaningful letter writing is, be it by hand, or in digital format. It’s the content that’s important. We can all feel richer by sharing and reading each other’s thoughts and feelings. Thanks so much for sharing your view!
Reading this book was such a treat, and listening to it on CD was doubly so, even though I normally dislike the format. Thanks for another great review, I always share your insights but can never express them as eloquently. By the way, I love the bit about Jane Austen, and the analogies.
Now that’s interesting… listening to this book may well be more entertaining since it’s letters that are being read out, like the characters speaking to each other directly. I’ve read that a movie version is brewing (click on the GLAPPPS official website at the bottom of my post), that will be one delightful film if it’s being done right.
Thanks for your lovely and thoughtful review of Guernsey. I so enjoyed the book — felt transported to another time. When I was a young child, mail was still delivered twice a day where we lived, and I remember how eagerly I waited for letters — and how quickly one could get a response. Even in my college days, letterwriting was still a cherished art form. Now it is so very rare to find such a jewel in the mailbox. Alas, nothing but bills and flyers!
You are right, I think, that blogging is perhaps a form of correspondence to be cherished, but few bloggers are as literate and interesting as you are. You are my Juliet Ashton and Guernsey Literary Society rolled into one :o)
I’d be interested to know if you felt, as I did, the moment in the book when Shaffer’s niece took over? I read the book without reading the jacket first, so I was unaware of Shaffer’s illness. But I remember towards the end of the story feeling curiously rushed — as though suddenly the author wanted to wrap things up. I still loved the book and hated to see it end, but it seemed strange to me that after the slow and charming way we got to know each of the characters, all of the loose ends were tied up in such a hasty fashion.
Keep these wonderful reviews and musings coming, Arti. They are always such a treat.
That’s high praise that I certainly don’t deserve! But I thank you for your very kind words. Technology sure has made it easier to communicate, and instantly at that. Sometimes I feel utterly insufficient when I read other bloggers’ posts, their book discussions, or their actual writing of poetry and personal essays. So, I’m still a learner, and always will be.
As for the discrepancy you mentioned, you know, I didn’t have that feeling while reading. I only learned about Barrows taking over the re-writing of some parts after I finished the book. I really can’t tell the difference. But from Annie Barrows’ Afterwards, she mentions that she grew up in a family of storytellers, and that her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer was ‘one of the wittiest people’ she’d ever met. I suppose with such a family influence, her writing may well have taken after some of her aunt’s traits. She also mentions the invaluable advice of editor Susan Kamil. I suppose the artistic decision must have been made as a team. But I think you’re much more perceptive than I in reading the book.
Last but not least, let’s make blogging and commenting something to be cherished, for such may well be the only form of meaningful writing we engage in nowadays.
Thanks again for your comment!
The first person who came to mind as I was reading this was Ian in Hamburg, whose wonderful blog is aptly titled – Letters Home! As I recall, he began that blog as letters to family and friends while living as an expat, and then things changed, expanded and found a larger audience. But the title, and the tone, are the same.
I think you’re exactly right to draw the connection between letter writing and blogging. As for those telegraphs – they were the cutting edge technology of their time, and were embraced with equal enthusiasm.
It may be the comments which move blogs into the “correspondence” category. Many bloggers don’t expect a response, and don’t really want one. When comments are left, they’re simply ignored. But, in the case of so many who come to your blog and mine, it’s the comment that continues the conversation and helps to enrich and deepen the experience – just like in real life!
I may well give this book a try, too. Collections of letters are some of my favorite reading – using the form for a novel is intriguing.
I can’t think of any need for writing nowadays other than jotting down notes or making lists, or the occasional cards, even that has become more infrequent. So that leaves blogging, and other online correspondences. And since we spend a significant amount of time on these activities, might as well make them worthwhile and meaningful. You’re right in pointing out that for some reasons, certain blogs’ comment section has developed into something like a forum for the sharing of ideas and sentiments, and I like that. They are great motivation to spur me on with my writing. I agree with you that the post entry makes up only a portion while the vibrant exchanges of viewpoints elicited from it make up the other essential part. Every comment left by a reader contributes to the whole post, and I treasure every single one of them. Thanks for sharing!
I enjoy your great reviews. When we were in England we visited the town and boarding school that my friend’s father was evacuated to from Germany during WWII. It was so interesting to hear his story and visit with some lasting friends he made there…
It’s good to have the chance of hearing these stories first hand. I know there were a lot of children being evacuated during the war. I can’t imagine the separation anxiety for both parents and kids… but then as your friend’s father had shared, the upside could be some positive life experiences.
I have to borrow a phrase from my Saturday TV guide — “Like this, see also”. I haven’t heard of your book but 84 Charing Cross Road by one of my favourite writers Helene Hanff came to mind. It’s a ‘very simple story of the love affair between Miss Helene Hanff of New York and Messrs Marks & Co, sellers of rare and secondhand books at 84 Charing Cross Road, London’. HH posted her first letter on Oct 5 1949 asking for books she couldn’t find in NY and by Christmas, started to send the first of many food parcels to London (at the time was rationed to 2 oz of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month). From the letters we read that she found her books and friendship of the many people whose lives she touched. You probably knew that it has been made into a film (Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins). I saw the movie first and then found her books (all of them) years later. The last time I checked (must be at least 15 years ago) the bookshop was no longer but then a music shop. If you happen to pass by this way, you can still find a plaque inside one of the walls in the store.
Thank you for all your brilliant posts, sharing with us your intelligent insight into the books and films brought to our attention. I am not a JA fan, but I got all her books for my daughter (17) and she finished them in a month, and likes them (she said Persuasion is the best). As for the films (to name but two — ILYSL/the Soloist), I must say I am REALLY envious (jealous?) of you since we don’t have them shown over here in this quiet corner of England. I could only patiently wait for late night TV movie on Channel Film 4 (normally a couple of years after)(and I don’t buy DVDs – perhaps I should?). Recently I caught WDYLSYF and Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, made my day.
Keep your good work going, Arti — it’s nice to know that there are wonderful things in life to look forward to.
Thanks for telling me about 84 Charing Cross Road. I’ve seen that DVD in the public library before but didn’t know too much about it, although the actors AH and AB did make me pause a bit. But next time I see it I must take it out, upon your recommendation. Likewise, regarding DVD’s for the movies I’ve reviewed here, would the public library in your area carry them? Kristin Scott Thomas is like a national treasure for England, having been awarded the OBE. I just think it wouldn’t be difficult to find her films. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed WDYLSYF and ESOFSM. They are truly unique aren’t they, especially the latter. And, regarding Jane Austen, another national treasure, your daughter sure is a precocious and intelligent reader. Of JA’s six novels, Persuasion probably is the one that appeals to a more mature readership.
Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your comment. Hope to hear from you again!
The art of letter writing=blogging.. makes a lot of sense. This is on my nightstand waiting to be read. Glad to hear positive notes from you.
claire, I’d love to hear what you think of it after your reading. Thanks for stopping by! Arti
I was lucky enough to get a review copy of this book last summer and have been touting this story to everyone since I reviewed it. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. Interesting that you compare letters to blog posts and telegrams to twitter. You write good reviews.
Thanks for your kind words. You have an impressive book blog there too at ‘fresh ink books’ and I look forward to some mutual visitation and commenting in the future. Nice to have a fellow Canuck visiting!
For nearly three decades, one of my very favorite books has been _The Book of Ebenezer LePage_ the posthumous novel by Guernseyman G.B. Edwards; it covers a greater span of time than _The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society_, but that span includes the German occupation of the Island. Edward’s book (his only) is more heartbreaking: it is of lost loves of a woman and an island. Edwards was an old man when he wrote it, one no longer able to live on Guernsey which, because of its peculiar tax laws, had become a magnet for corporate headquarters and their attendant suits by the 60s, and few natives could afford to live there. Both his book and this one present a society that no longer exists, and that is enough for me to have a tinge of sadness in my delight at this one.
It is wonderful that such a small place can inspire two such books.
Thank you so much for telling me about G. B. Edwards’ book. It sounds like an epic, and a poignant one too. Yes, it’s truly amazing that such a small island and its native residents can inspire similar moving stories, testimonies to their resilience and humanity. And now, Guernsey as a tax haven has generated the added pathos of its residents being displaced rather than just occupied as they had experienced during the War.
Thank you for your contribution to this post. I look forward to more of your sharing on Ripple Effects in the coming days.
Displacement of ordinary people is a world-wide phenomenon: the industrial revolution was fueled by the enclosure acts that provided both more wool to process, and more former starving cottagers to process it, in those dark satanic mills. Gentrification in U.S. cities is driving inner-city folk back to the suburbs (a flow that will increase with gas prices), the same suburbs that formerly displaced farmers from their fields; in China, whole towns are moved in months when the government wishes to install some mammoth factory on the site (or dam the river people have lived along for millennia). The tearing of the social fabric offers all sorts of plot possibilities by the very pain it inflicts, but is never much fun for the participants. Goldsmith’s “The deserted Village” looks at what is left behind, and Steinbeck’s _Grapes of Wrath_ at the exodus of the same process.
I do hope you read Edwards; the book was published by Knopf back in ’81, before the ISBN appeared, but I would hope used copies are available (I just checked–it went back into print in ’07!). At its end, the book contains a nice essay on the Guernsey patois, a blend of strange English and stranger French that varies slightly from parish to parish and from low church to high.
I’ll be interested to get hold of that book one of these days. As for displacement of people under the wheels of modern progress in China, I highly recommend the award-winning documentary Up The Yangtze, about the human cost of building the Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River.