Monday, January 10, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I came too close to not reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. First—it was one of those super hyped books that you just can’t escape. You know the ones: you can’t turn around too quickly in B&N or your oversized purse will knock over the display and send twenty copies hurtling to the floor. Second, despite the originality of the title, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s a bit off-putting to have to refer to a book by some kind of nickname. But the real problem was, it features a time period that doesn’t particularly grab me. WWII and the years immediately following...well, it’s not the middle ages.

But I couldn’t deny that a lot of people love this book. And then my coworker, who reads a fair amount of historical fiction and recommends things to me from time to time, told me I should read it. I thought, yes, I know I should, but...

Finally, I was at my local indie bookstore looking for a book that wasn’t there. I wanted to buy something though, since I had made the trip. And naturally, a nice, fat display of TGL&PPS was there for the purchasing. So I did.

Still, it sat on my TBR pile for another couple months until finally, after reading The Book Thief and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I decided I may as well continue with the WWII theme. I picked up the book. And I could not put it down.

Why didn’t anyone tell me it was an epistolary novel?

Juliet Ashton is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve come across in a long time. She’s intelligent, curious, and generous. The tale is told through letters to and from her friends, who love her dearly for good reason. By the end of the book, I loved her too!

Juliet is a journalist/writer looking for her next book topic. She receives a letter from a man on the island of Guernsey which had been occupied by the Nazis during the war. They strike up a correspondence. Before long, she goes to visit him and the other inhabitants. She learns a good deal about wartime Guernsey and finds a topic for her next book.

That was the plot skeleton. The sweet, funny, poignant letters that fly back and forth from Guernsey all over England pack so much onto that skeleton that an entire island comes alive. The inhabitants endured the deprivation and oppression of the occupation with a strength and a nobility that inspires Juliet and impresses us. But the book is not all war and occupation. A gentle love story develops that is utterly charming.

This book is written in a witty style but with beautiful prose. I learned new things about history. I can’t ask for much more from a historical novel. And one of the things that was so nice about this particular WWII book was that it leaves you with the upbeat belief that most people are inherently good. If you haven’t read it yet, I’ll echo my coworker’s urging—you should.


  1. Nice review. I loved the characters in this book. I loved how it was about war and suffering, but like you said, it was upbeat. Very talented author.

  2. Sounds wonderful! I've also been intrigued by this book but haven't yet picked it up. I'm much more tempted to now ;) Epistolary novels amaze me--how letter-writing can create the plot of a story. I had the great pleasure of reading 84 Charing Cross Road recently, and I read Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary as a child (loved both). Thanks for the great review :)

  3. Lovely review.
    I enjoyed this one too. A fab read. I had overlooked it for a while thinking it would be about a group of old ladies.

    Such a feel good novel despite the subject.


  4. Have you read Letters from an Age of Reason by Nora Hague? Or 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff? Or Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster? All epistolary historical fiction novels I hope you'll love! (Though the first and the third are regrettably out of print but can be found online.) I'm so glad I discovered your site!

  5. Lovely review Susan and you've echoed my thoughts pretty well. I read this a couple of years ago too. I bought it to read on the way to a conference when I knew I'd have some time to read it- it was perfect. I love an epistolary novel too, there's something about them.