After submerging myself in the Victorian world of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone
, I fancied a quick, light-hearted read to bring me back into the 20th Century. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society written by Mary Ann Shaffer and completed by her niece Annie Barrows, was just what the doctor ordered.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written in the form of a series of letters starting in 1946, just after WWII has finished. Author, Juliet Ashton is having trouble thinking of what to write next. Out of the blue, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey who has found her old address in a book that once belonged to her and Dawsey and Juliet begin to correspond. Details about the Guernsey islanders life during the German occupation are discovered and about a special society that was formed during that time – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. As Juliet digs deeper into the origins of the society she writes and receives letters from an array of characters who between them illuminate the story of the society and the occupation. As Juliet unravels the pieces of the story she not only becomes fascinated with the islanders’ experiences, she makes lasting friendships.
Had this novel not been so highly recommended to me, I don’t think I would ever have picked it up, thinking that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. In fact even halfway through reading it I didn’t want to like it, but in spite of myself I found it to be one of the most heartwarming and poignant pieces of writing I have read in a while. In some ways it reminded me of Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip (my glowing review of it is here), in the way that it combined bright humour with darker undertones. Usually I would be put off by the correspondence format of the novel, but I found that the letters were well arranged so that the story flowed and the different characters were revealed through their unique voices.
One of the most important things for me was that I liked the character of Juliet. In fact I liked all of the characters I was supposed to like! At first I thought she was a little bit flippant, but as the story developed I came to like her more and more. She seemed sparkly and vibrant – someone you’d like to know! I think this is one of the great successes of the novel, as it’s so easy to ruin a book by having a downright unlikable character as the main voice. I felt as if I was being drawn into the lives of the islanders along with Juliet and they all seemed such lovely people, especially Isola who has a pet parrot and is the perfect scatty hostess. Her description of herself was so honest and frank without being slyly self-depreciating:
“I do not have a pleasing appearance. My nose is big and was broken when I fell off the hen-house roof. One eyeball skitters up to the top, and my hair is wild and will not stay tamped down. I am tall and built of big bones.”
I loved John Booker’s philosophy on learning:
“I think you learn more if you’re laughing at the same time.”
I also loved the descriptions of the little girl Kit, and her assessment of Juliet during their first meeting:
“Kit sat beside me in the cart and sent me many sideways glances. I was not so foolish as to try to talk to her, but I played my severe-thumb trick – you know, the one that makes your thumb look as though it’s been sliced in two. I did it over and over again, casually, not looking at her, while she watched me like a baby hawk. She was intent and fascinated but not gullible enough to break into giggles. She just said at last, ‘show me how you do that.’”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society strikes just the right chord between being witty and enjoyable whilst revealing heartbreaking moments and experiences. The painful stories about the German occupation, close friends being sent to prisoner of war camps, and petty betrayals are weighed out in equal measure with little triumphs, discoveries and wonderful friendships. I can’t fault it – it’s just a truly lovely story.