In this issue:The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which takes place in London and the Isle of Guernsey, is a clear winner on the side of delightful; A Voyage Long and Strange is an interesting history of the earliest exploration and settlement of the Americas; readers of The Monster of Florence will find this story fascinating, frustrating, and challenging
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, © 2008 by The Trust Estate of Mary Ann Shaffer& Annie Barrows; Hardback, 274 pp
Published by Dial Press/Random House
These days, good epistolary novels are increasingly hard to find. The genre often suffers from weak writing or boring plots, never mind excess verbiage. There seems to be small (if any) middle ground between those and books like 1995’s delightful Charing Cross Road.
It is gratifying to report that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a clear winner on the side of delightful.
The story takes place just after World War II, in metropolitan London and on the Isle of Guernsey. Parts of the story are bleak indeed, but fortunately this novel is set in happier times (1946), shortly after the end of the war. We learn the details of the back-story slowly, woven into the lives of the characters.
Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands that the Germans occupied during the war, and in 1946 it was just beginning to set itself to rights. It’s likely that most Americans (including this reviewer) have never realized that the Germans had such a close foothold in their planned assault on England. The details of the hardships endured by Guernsey’s populace during the occupation were new to me. Food was scarce. The Germans imposed many arbitrary rules, enforced by severe punishments that included being shot, or sent to their infamous prison camps on the Continent.
When the States (the island’s governing body) realized that the German invasion was imminent, they asked the government in London to send boats to evacuate the island’s children. Parents had one day to decide whether to send their children to safety, not knowing where or to whom they would be sent. Boats that had just returned from Dunkirk turned around and came back across the Channel for them.
This story, however, is about the happier, post-war times, as told in correspondence (including telegrams) written to or by Juliet Ashton. She is a young writer who has just finished a public relations tour, and is now in search of the subject of her next book.
Out of the blue, she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer and sometime longshoreman in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey. Dawsey, it seems, once purchased an old book, and found her name and address written inside the front cover. The book is The Selected Essays of Elia, whose real name was Charles Lamb. Dawsey describes how the book made him laugh during the German Occupation:
"... especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb. “
Dawsey has written to Juliet to ask if she can recommend a bookseller in London who would be willing to send him other works by Lamb, since even though the Germans have left, there are not yet any book shops on Guernsey.
Juliet, having identified a fellow book-lover, responds with the name of her bookseller, along with the gift of a copy of Lamb’s Selected Letters. She requests explanations of (a) why the roast pig dinner had to be kept secret?, (b) how could a pig inspire the founding of a literary society?, and (c) what is potato peel pie?
Thus begins a correspondence that grows exponentially, because when the Times asks Juliet to write an article for its literary supplement on the philosophical value of reading, she decides to include the Guernsey Literary Society in it. She contacts Dawsey, who in turn refers her to others in the society, resulting in a marvelously informative correspondence with its various members. The diverse personalities of those members come through vividly and intriguingly, and before long it is obvious that Juliet will have to make an in-the-flesh visit to the island if she wants to write the article that is beginning to compose itself in her head.
The results of that visit are life-changing (for her) and heart-warming (for the reader).
It is great fun to discover a well-plotted, sophisticated novel full of history, humor, intelligence and romance, all balled up together and wrapped in good writing. I was hard-put to set this book down, and devoured it in about three big and very happy bites.
Anyone who loves books should probably trot right down to the local bookstore. Odds are, you will be enchanted with this one.