Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I wanted to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows as soon as I read the description in LibraryThing's Early Reviewer list for June. I was selected for a different book, so I pre-ordered this one. It was everything I had hoped for, a perfect read--or near enough perfect to suit me. The novel is written in letters, most of either to or from Juliet, a writer who gained a following as a columnist using humor to cover World War II. In 1946, when the novel begins, Juliet is casting about for her an idea for a new novel when she receives a letter by chance--a man named Dawsey, who lives on Guernsey, happened to buy a book formerly owned by Juliet, and he is writing to find out if there are other books by the same author (Charles Lamb). He mentions that Guernsey had been cut off from the rest of the world during the German occupation and alludes to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, of which he was a part. Intrigued, Juliet writes back, asking for an explanation of the Society and more information on the Occupation. He replies that the group was formed as a spontaneous defense for breaking curfew, and they decided they'd better keep meeting or risk being found out. Throughout the five years of occupation, an unlikely group, many of whom had never before read anything but farming publications, read a book to present to the group. The Society's members begin to correspond with Juliet, widening her circle and drawing her into their lives. The letters not only detail the history of the Guernsey occupation; they reveal what reading means to the human spirit and how chance encounters can change a life. This slender volume (only 274 pages) is brilliantly and sensitively written, with anecdotes that expose what happens to people under extreme conditions; the Guernsey citizens and German forces are illustrated with acts of inhuman cruelty and desperation, but also with instances of courage, empathy, and humanity. When I read a book like this, I wonder how I would respond to the conditions endured. Would I be the person ratting out my neighbors to secure extra rations? I hope not. How would I choose whether to keep my child with me in unknown conditions or to send her to live with strangers for an indeterminate time? Would I risk my own freedom (and even life) to save another?

This novel was absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and uplifting, not to mention with a wicked sense of humor. Juliet is a likable protagonist and I adored the Guernsey folk. If Juliet's relationship with Mark was sometimes a bit clunky (why couldn't she tell he was a wanker?), I quickly forgave the intrusion because the novel as a whole was such a wonderful reading experience. I recommend this book to absolutely everyone.

Mary Ann Shaffer asked her niece, Annie Barrows, to help her finish writing the book (her first) when Ms. Schaffer's failing health prevented her from doing so herself. Unfortunately, Ms. Shaffer has since passed away. I hope that Ms. Barrows considers penning a sequel.


Holly said...

Oh, this sounds interesting. I might have to suggest it to our book club. Thanks for the review! I've been hearing great things about this everywhere!

Matt and Allison Campbell said...

This would be an awesome book club book!