Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

There's something about an epistolary novel that is just. so. charming. Set the book in 1946, just after World War II, set it in England, and you know you're going to end up with a pile of letters that filled with "yours ever[s]" and references to tea time and there will be the occasional telegram when other missives can't get there fast enough. It also means, when letters are the primary mode of communication between people, that they aren't in physical proximity to each other and that's going to fuel the plot.

While we can just dash off emails and text messages today, you realize the things that are lost when you read a book like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, newly out in paperback. In it, writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a man, Dawsey, who lives on Guernsey Island. He tells Juliet that the island was occupied by German soldiers during the war, and that no new books have been able to make their way there yet. He also tells her how some crafty islanders invented a literary society so they could circumvent the soldiers' rules and see each other after dark.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (named for a dessert made by a society member made with mashed potatoes for the filling, with strained beets for sweetener and peels for the crust) consists of a crop of eclectic and endearing characters — like Isola, who loves the Bronte sisters and "stories of passionate encounters, [though she has] never had one" to Eben, a fisherman. After Juliet begins to correspond with Dawsey, the other members of the society begin writing to her as well. We learn, though, that the quick-witted Elizabeth, who founded the society, was taken to a German concentration camp, and no one has heard from her since. She left behind a daughter, who the society members take turns caring for.

Society members quickly endear themselves to Juliet by telling her about their war time experiences, and she makes a trip to Guernsey. From then on, the book becomes predictable, but that's okay. The authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Shaffer died before extensive re-writes could be done, and her author niece Barrows stepped in to finish it), have provided a glimpse into the five year occupation of the Channel Islands, and they've developed some incomparable characters while doing so. It's the kind of book you want to read with a cup of tea in hand, and with its continual references to books, I can see this becoming a book club pick for years to come.


  1. Have you ever read "Last Days of Summer" by Steve Kluger? It's like chick-lit for dudes; a novel composed of the letters back and forth between a twelve-year-old boy in Brooklyn and his favorite third baseman for the New York Giants. It's heartbreaking.

  2. I like the concept of "chick-lit for dudes." Chick-lit ensnares women who aren't otherwise readers, but men who aren't readers don't have an option like those books with shoes on the cover. Maybe this is the genre I should launch.

  3. I don't know, I think men *do* have that option (see: every thriller ever), they just don't have to suffer it being ghettoized with pastel covers and a cutesy, condescending "just for you ladiezzz" nickname. Of course, I may just be subscribing to outdated gender expectations there, by assuming women want to focus on relationships and men want to focus on explosions. If you're advocating for books for men that focus on relationships, you're right, there's untapped potential there. Just look at the massive success of Nick Hornby.

    And if you like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which I thoroughly enjoyed) you would love 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. It's an epistolary memoir between a wise aleck New York writer (Helene) and the staff of a used bookstore in London. It what Guernsey would have been like, if it were a true story. It also takes about 20 minutes to read.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation!

    You're right, I think what I had in mind was something along the lines of Hornby.