A new life begins for a single female journalist in London when World War II ends
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22.
By Janice Harayda
Juliet Ashton realizes as 1946 begins that she can’t finish the book about English foibles that she has promised her London publisher. She knows she should have no trouble writing about groups like the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. Hasn’t she found a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators’ Trade Union marching down the street with placards shouting, “Down with Beatrix Potter!”?
But on the first page of this warm and sunny novel in letters, Juliet confesses to her publisher that she has lost interest in the anti-bunny-glorifiers. Four days later, with the remarkable luck that will follow her through the story, she gets a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Dawsey Adams lives on Guernsey, a Channel Island recovering from its occupation by Nazis, and asks if she can recommend a London bookshop.
Julie begins to correspond with Dawsey and the members of his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and arranges to visit them, although a handsome American publishing tycoon wants her to stay in London. As she becomes enmeshed in the islanders’ lives, she learns she can’t escape the effects of war as she had once longed to do: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society lacks the natural charm of books it superficially resembles, such Helene Hanff’s memoir 84, Charing Cross Road and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s novel A Woman of Independent Means. But the book has an earned sweetness that comes close to it — it’s the equivalent of suitor who may lack charm but sends you so many flowers that you almost forget that he does.
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows evoke well the hardships of islanders who made do with wartime rations of one candle a week and cooked their vegetables in seawater for lack of salt. The authors also offer many well-chosen quotes and anecdotes about an eclectic group of poets and writers: Chaucer, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, the Brontë sisters. And in the age of Dr. Phil and Twitter, it’s refreshing to meet characters like the book-club member who finds comfort in the words the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”
Best line: “I don’t believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower’s Ill-Used by Candlelight.” — Isola Pribby in a letter to Juliet Ashton
Worst line: Julie writes to a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: “I no longer live on Oakley Street, but I’m so glad that your letters found me and that my book found you.” Would someone who had always lived in England say “on Oakley Street” or “in Oakley Street”?
Recommendation? This novel has no sex or, as parents say, “bad words.” I gave it to an aunt for her 85th birthday. But it’s also likely to appeal for many younger readers, including some teenagers. And it is much more intelligent than many books popular among book clubs.
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.
Editor: Susan Kamil
Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com
About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died before it appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process www.anniebarrows.com/.
If you like this book, you might like: A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and the former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
© 2008 Janice Harayda