Update: I decided to re-read this charming novel in preparation for watching the newly released movie. I finished the book on August 12, 2018 and thought it was just as good as when I first read it in 2008. I love it when that happens!
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Contemporary Fiction - Epistolary
2008 The Dial Press
Finished on 7/23/08
Rating: 4.75/5 (Fabulous!)
ARC - Release date of July 29th
“Here's who will love this book—anyone who nods in profound agreement with the statement,'Reading keeps you from going gaga.' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a delight. Tart, insightful and fun.”—Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day.
"...I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."
January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she'd never met, a native of Guernsey, the British island once occupied by the Nazis. He'd come across her name on the flyleaf of a secondhand volume by Charles Lamb. Perhaps she could tell him where he might find more books by this author.
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, she is drawn into the world of this man and his friends, all members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a unique book club formed in a unique, spur-of-the-moment way: as an alibi to protect its members from arrest by the Germans.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's charming, deeply human members, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. Through their letters she learns about their island, their taste in books, and the powerful, transformative impact the recent German occupations has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds there will change her forever.
Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
The minute I read the above blurb, I knew this was my kind of book. I love epistolary works (84, Charing Cross Road is one of my all-time favorites!) and I love books set during (and post) World War II. I was immediately drawn into Juliet's story and found myself reading late into the night, savoring each letter, dreading the impending finale as it drew near.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a delightful book and a joy to read! I chuckled to myself on several occasions, felt a gentle tug at my heartstrings toward the end of the story, and had a strong desire to book a flight to the island for a month-long getaway! It didn't take long to realize that this entertaining novel will be among my Top Ten for 2008 and one I'll enjoy recommending to friends, family and customers at work.
I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers—booksellers really are a special breed. No one in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and no proprietor in his right mind would want to own one—the margin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it—along with first dibs on the new books.
On literary societies...
None of us had any experience with literary societies, so we made our own rules: we took turns speaking about the books we'd read. At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves. Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another. Other Islanders asked to join us, and our evenings together became bright, lively times—we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside. We still meet every fortnight.
On the Occupation...
Due to your kind offices, I have received lovely, long letters from Mrs. Maugery and Isola Pribby. I hadn't realized that the Germans permitted no outside news at all, not even letters, to reach Guernsey. It surprised me so much. It shouldn't have—I knew the Channel Islands had been occupied, but I never, not once, thought what that might have entailed. Willful ignorance is all I can call it. So, I am off to the London Library to educate myself. The library suffered terrible bomb damage, but the floors are safe to walk on again, all the books that could be saved are back on the shelf, and I know they have collected all the Times from 1900 to—yesterday. I shall study up on the Occupation.
On the evacuation of the children...
Eli left Guernsey on 20th June, along with the thousands of babies and schoolchildren who were evacuated to England. We knew the Germans were coming and Jane worried for his safety here. The doctor would not let Jane sail with them, the baby's birth being so close.
Eli did not come back until the war was over—and they did send all the children home at once. That was a day! More wonderful even than when the British soldiers came to liberate Guernsey. Eli, he was the first boy down the gangway—he'd grown long legs in five years—and I don't think I could have left off hugging him to me, if Isola hadn't pushed me a bit so she could hug him herself.
On the island and slave labor...
My greatest pleasure has been in resuming my evening walks along the cliff tops. The Channel is no longer framed in rolls of barbed wire, the view is unbroken by huge VERBOTEN signs. The mines are gone from our beaches, and I can walk when, where, and for as long as I like. If I stand on the cliffs and turn out to face the sea, I don't see the ugly cement bunkers behind me, or the land naked without its trees. Not even the Germans could ruin the sea.
This summer the gorse will begin to grow around the fortifications, and by next year, perhaps vines will creep all over them. I hope they are soon covered. For all I can look away, I will never be able to forget how they were made.
The Todt workers built them. I know you have heard of Germany's slave workers in camps on the continent, but did you know that Hitler sent over sixteen thousand of them here, to the Channel Islands?
Hitler was fanatic about fortifying these islands—England was never to get them back! His generals called it Island Madness. He ordered large-gun emplacements, anti-tank walls on the beaches, hundreds of bunkers and batteries, arms and bomb depots, miles and miles of underground tunnels, a huge underground hospital, and a railroad to cross the island to carry materials. The coastal fortifications were absurd—the Channel Isles were better fortified than the Atlantic Wall built against an Allied invasion. The installations jutted out over every bay. The Third Reich was to last one thousand years—in concrete.
I had a small supper party for him—cooked by me alone, and edible too. Will Thisbee gave me The Beginner's Cook-Book for Girl Guides. It was just the thing; the writer assumes you know nothing about cookery and writes useful hints—"When adding eggs, break the shells first."
Epistolary novels bring a sense of intimacy to the reader, and the Guernsey characters and location are so nicely drawn, I felt a bit sad, as though I were saying goodbye to a group of new friends as I finished the final page of this fabulous book. I was also saddened to learn that Mary Ann Shaffer died in February at the age of 73. What a shame that she didn't live long enough to see her first published novel. I hope her niece (and co-author), Annie Barrows, continues to write, possibly with a follow-up to this wonderful story. It was a joy to read and one I'll return to in the coming years.
I have a feeling this book will not only be quite popular with book groups, but it's also the sort that is sure to be passed around among friends and co-workers.
Cornflower claims, Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an utter joy of a book, beautifully judged, witty, lively, almost Mitfordesque at times, sparky, extremely touching, and I can't recommend it highly enough. To read her complete review, go here.
You can find The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society website here.