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
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.
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:
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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