The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society seems a bit twee at first—the kind of cozy read best enjoyed by Anglophiles with a penchant for tea and scones. Set in London and on the island of Guernsey just after World War II, the novel focuses on Juliet Ashton, a high-spirited, independent-minded young woman who has yet to find the right chap. A successful writer and newspaper columnist, Juliet is embarking on a tour to promote her latest book as the story begins.
You just know plucky Juliet will find happiness by book’s end, and she does—but not in the way you might have expected. Indeed, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, imaginatively constructed as a series of letters mostly to and from Juliet, is more ambitious than it appears. In addition to charting Juliet’s romantic progress, it describes, in credible detail, the Nazi occupation of Guernsey (which is in the English channel, off the coast of Normandy) and the travails of the locals who lived through it.
The title refers to a (fictitious) book group, created during the occupation by some Islanders desperate to conceal a pig roast from the Nazis. The members of the group are a charming, eccentric lot, whom Juliet comes to know because of a serendipitous letter written to her by one of its members, Dawsey Adams, a farmer and ardent reader. Before long, Juliet has become deeply involved with the Islanders, first through correspondence, then in person, as she travels to Guernsey in search of a subject for her next book. Suffice it to say that she finds what she’s looking for, and more.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is suffused with a love of literature, and dotted with literary references (Juliet is the author of a failed biography of Anne Brontë; Dawsey’s first letter to her is a paean to the English essayist and poet Charles Lamb). Small wonder: Mary Ann Shaffer, who cowrote the novel with her niece, Annie Barrows, was a book editor, bookseller, and librarian. According to their publisher, Shaffer visited London in 1976, and on a brief excursion to Guernsey found books and pamphlets about the German occupation. She became fascinated by the subject, finally making it the backdrop for this, her first and only novel. Shaffer died earlier this year after an illness, and Barrows took over the writing when her aunt could no longer continue.
The writing is seamless, however, and in places quite accomplished. The descriptions of Guernsey’s natural beauty make you want to visit there. The portrayal of Juliet’s budding friendship with a little girl named Kit is quite touching; even more so is the story of Kit’s courageous mother, Elizabeth, who left the island during the war and has yet to return. And though broadly drawn, such incidental characters as Adelaide Addison, Guernsey’s thick-as-a-brick busybody, and Billie Bee Jones, ace assistant and would-be thief, provide amusing comic touches.
More important, the authors provide a graphic, unsparing depiction of Guernsey under the Nazis, as well as of the horrors of Ravensbruck and Belsen, German concentration camps that figure in the plot. The mixing of this wrenching material with the more lighthearted passages gives the reader pause, but the writers pull it off for the most part.
An epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society belongs to a genre that includes books ranging from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa to Stephen King’s Carrie. While it may not be remembered as long or as vividly as those two, Guernsey is fresh and inventive, as well as a very good read…with or without a cup of tea.
Evelyn Renold is an editor and writer who lives in New York City. Read her review of The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.
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