BookBrowse Reviews The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2008, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2009, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways

At first glance, readers may wonder how entertaining a book consisting entirely of fictional correspondence could be - a format that has been employed with mixed results by others. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, however, are able to use this style to great advantage in their novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The result is a charming tale imbued with history, romance and humor.

Comparisons between The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the works of Jane Austen are inevitable. Elizabeth Bennett pops into the reader's mind early in the book, as the writings of the main character, Juliet Ashton, display the same sort of sharp, irreverent wit as the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. As with Austen's works, the main strength of this novel is the authors' ability to develop characters that readers genuinely come to care for. Each of the islanders has a unique voice and personality which is evident not only in their own correspondence to Juliet, but in the gossipy letters the neighbors compose about each other as well. There are a couple of exceptions; a self-righteous neighbor and an overly saintly missing member of the Society are one-dimensional, but the rest of the characters are so well-drawn that it's easy to forgive the occasional cursory sketch.

The letters substitute for dialog, adding a sense of realism to the islanders' first-person accounts. The incidents the islanders relate regarding their experiences during the German Occupation are engaging and, at times, quite affecting. Unlike most historical fiction, events aren't told in chronological order or in great depth; there's no attempt here to convey a complete history. The readers are instead presented with isolated, individual experiences. It's a bit like listening to a grandparent relate his or her wartime experiences. There's little context, but little is needed.

Other pieces of correspondence reflect the warm relationship Juliet has with her publisher and his sister, and the growing bond between Juliet and the residents of Guernsey. The authors also insert passages that provide readers with a feel for what it was like to live in England after World War II:

"Then Susan suggested a new dress. I reminded her that the Queen was very happy wearing her 1939 wardrobe, so why shouldn't I be? She said the Queen doesn't need to impress strangers – but I do. I felt like a traitor to crown and country; no decent woman has new clothes – but I forgot that the moment I saw myself in the mirror. My first new dress in four years… New shoes are going to have to wait, since I spent almost a year's worth of clothing coupons on the dress."

The epistolary format works well for this book – most of the time. There are a few longer "letters" in the book that detail the history of Guernsey that feel forced and interruptive. These sections abandon the conversational style prevalent in the rest of the novel, instead reading as if they were copied verbatim from a geography textbook. Fortunately, these passages are few and occur early on in the novel.

Overall, this is a very pleasant novel sure to please those looking for a lighter read. It's the perfect way to while away an afternoon, and will leave its readers smiling.

First Impressions
Twenty BookBrowse members reviewed this book, with eighteen rating it four or five on a five-point scale. Read their comments here.


About the Authors
Mary Ann Shaffer was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1934. Her career included libraries, bookstores, and publishing, but her life-long dream was to "write a book that someone would like enough to publish." Though she did not live to see it, this dream has been realized in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

She became interested in Guernsey while visiting London in 1976. On a whim, she decided to fly to Guernsey but became stranded there when a thick fog descended and all boats and planes were forbidden to leave the island. As she waited for the fog to lift, warming herself by the heat of the hand-dryer in the men's restroom, she read all the books in the Guernsey airport bookstore, including Jersey under the Jack-Boot. Thus began her fascination with the German Occupation of the Channel Islands.

Many years later, when goaded by her book club to write a novel, Mary Ann naturally thought of Guernsey. She chose to write in the epistolary form because, "for some bizarre reason, I thought it would be easier." Several years of work yielded The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which was greeted with avid enthusiasm, first by her family, then by her writing group, and finally by publishers around the world.

Sadly, Mary Ann's health began to decline shortly thereafter, and she asked her niece, Annie Barrows (author of the Ivy and Bean series for children, as well as The Magic Half), to help her finish the book. Mary Ann died in February 2008, knowing that her novel was to be published in English and in translation in many languages throughout the world.



Britain vs UK vs England
Have you ever been confused by the various different names used to describe the soggy group of islands in the North Atlantic? If so, here's a quick primer:

  • British Isles: A geographical term to describe the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and the many smaller surrounding islands.
  • Great Britain: A geographical term to describe the main island of the British Isles consisting of England, Scotland and Wales.
  • United Kingdom (UK): A political term to describe the country comprising of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Kingdoms of Scotland and England were joined in 1706/7 by the Acts of Union during the reign of James VI of Scotland, who was also James I of England having inherited the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I. Wales had been annexed to the English legal system in the mid 16th century and thus became part of the newly formed United Kingdom. Ireland was part of the UK from 1801 to 1922 when it seceded from the UK and was partitioned into North (predominantly Protestant) and South (predominantly Catholic).  Immediately after being divided, and as expected, the Parliament of Northern Ireland chose to opt out of the Irish Free State and join the UK.
  • Britain: Sometimes a shortening of Great Britain but more often used as a political synonym for the UK.
  • British Commonwealth (properly known today as the Commonwealth of Nations): A voluntary association of 50+ countries, mostly former British colonies, who share the British monarch as their symbolic head, including Canada, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Australia, Papua New Guinea and, of course, the United Kingdom.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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