The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author(s): Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
#1 New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2008
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
I have never in my life wanted to join any group as much as I wanted to join The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I picked this up in a used bookstore, and asked the owner what she thought of it. She said “It was absolutely one of the best books I read all year.” With an endorsement like that, I could hardly leave without it, and she was right. As it is explained towards the beginning of the book, a bookseller has a way of being able to size a person up and march them directly to a particular novel and order them to read it. If the person doesn’t like it, you never see them again. If they like it, you have a customer for life.
The setting is just after the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War two. Juliet Ashton is a London author of what she considers to be “fluff”; that is, she writes lighthearted commentary about the war under a pseudonym to keep people’s spirits up. It has made her famous, but now that the occupation is over, she is ready to write serious novels under her real name. Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey man, finds Juliet’s name and address in a used book which he managed to acquire, and writes to her. He does not know that she is a writer, but as she lives in London, he thinks that maybe she will be willing to send him some more books and some news of the outside world – the Nazi occupation of Guernsey has put an end to all communication. She is only too happy to oblige, and the two begin exchanging letters.
Dawsey reveals that he is a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – a group formed as a lark when he and several neighbors were caught breaking curfew by the Nazis, and in part to conceal a secret roast pig. As time went on, however, the society became important to all of them as a way to distract themselves from the Occupation, and strong friendships were forged. Juliet is fascinated (and smells a possibility for her first serious novel), and begins exchanging letters with all of the other members of the tight-knit group. The talk of the society begins to give way to memories of the Occupation and how each person survived, and Juliet decides that she must go to Guernsey and meet the members herself. This is complicated slightly by the fact that she is being pursued by a rich and handsome American who wishes to marry her.
This was such an utterly, wonderfully charming read. I seemed to either tear up or laugh on every other page. The members are religiously devoted to every author they manage to get their hands on, and spirited debates ensue. The list of authors discussed is distinguished indeed – Charles Lamb, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, etc. save for one woman who wished to read selections from her very own book of thoughts. “Everybody knows what Mary Margaret thinks about everything already, but we voted ‘aye’ because we like Mary Margaret.” Juliet is quickly embraced, and finds herself wondering whether to go back to London, or to remain in Guernsey for good.
Fun Fact: The novel was started by Mary Ann Shaffer and, as she passed away before its completion, was finished by her niece, Annie Barrows.
Bother if: I really can’t say enough good things about this novel. Read it. It’s an homage to literature as well as a beautifully heartwarming story. I fell in love with every single character and couldn’t put it down. It made me wish that I was in the society and friends with all of them. It made me wish that people still wrote personal letters. It made me wish that more novels were so beautifully crafted.
Don’t bother if: The book is entirely written as a series of letters between all of the characters, and that’s how you get to know them. Some people dislike that style of telling a story. It also necessarily has themes of war, the Holocaust, concentration camps, and other heartbreaking aspects of all of those.