The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is billed as “a moving tale of post-war friendship, love, and books,”. I’m not into WWII historical fiction as a rule, but the bookish aspect of this one drew my attention.
This one also has a heart-wrenching authorial story. Mary Ann Shaffer was a 70-year-old former librarian, encouraged by members of her book club to write a book of her own. She was inspired by a visit to the English Channel island of Guernsey, and crafted a story that combined that location with her own lifelong passion for books and literature. Sadly, Shaffer’s health began to decline after she submitted her manuscript to publishers, and her niece Annie Barrows had to take over for final re-writes and edits. Shaffer passed away shortly before The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society was published in 2008, so she never saw her debut novel in print.
But wipe your tears away, we’ve got a book to review! The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, set in 1946. The action takes place between London, a city still recovering from the Blitz, and the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by Germans from 1940 to liberation in 1945.
32-year-old writer, Juliet Ashton, found fame and financial security (in very lean times) by writing comedic columns as an intrepid and subversive character. As the novel begins, she’s writing to her publisher to say that she’s ready for a change, to write under her own name about weightier topics. She begins casting around for an idea.
Around the same time, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a stranger from the island of Guernsey. A book that had previously belonged to her – The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb – has found its way into his hands, and he writes to her to tell her how much he enjoys it. They begin a correspondence, and Dawsey tells Juliet all about the literary society run by the residents of Guernsey. It began under strange circumstances, as an alibi for being out after the curfew imposed by German occupiers. Juliet is fascinated, and the story sparks an idea…
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a highly readable book, and surprisingly moving. The wide cast of characters is charming and entertaining, and the letter format is used to great effect. Most importantly to me, the war is more than a convenient backdrop – it’s integral to the plot and the characters, and Shaffer neither romanticises it nor exploits its horrors for dramatic effect.
I read an excellent review by Stevie Davies for The Guardian, which I think sums it up beautifully:
Shaffer’s Guernsey characters step from the past radiant with eccentricity and kindly humour, a comic version of the state of grace. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity.Stevie Davies (“Bright and dark” – Review of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society)
Given how well it flows and gently tugs on heartstrings, it’s no surprise that The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society hit the best-seller list. I’d imagine that book clubs the world over had a field day with it. It was also adapted into a 2018 film (starring Lily James as Juliet), and the trailer looks quite promising.
Overall, this isn’t a challenging or life-changing read, but a perfectly pleasant one – the perfect gift for a casual reader of historical or romantic fiction, or one with which to pass a quiet rainy afternoon yourself.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society:
- “Read the whole thing, dog conversations and all. Terrible. I was excited by the title and that turned out to be the best part.” – Sharon tonkin
- “How could they send four to five letters in the same day!!!!! They weren’t texting, they were writing letters! DUMB. And really, can somebody write letters everyday??? That tells me that Juliet didn’t have a life. WEIRD” – SuzieG
- “WW2 is SUPPOSED to be used as the backdrop and reason for the title, but the disjointed writing could cause a historically inept person to believe WW2 was fabricated by the authors as a convenient cause for secret food gatherings. This book is assanine.” – Siren23
- “Want to read about a starving Nazi soldier strangling a cat, boiling it and eating it? No? How about starving Nazi soldiers using spoons to scrape the bottom of a boat to pick up any food scraps left over? How about learning that the heroine you’ve been rooting for all along has been killed in prison and won’t return to her beloved island? Neither did I. The charming and romantic parts of which there were plenty were ruined with these graphic parts. It’s like serving a delicious salad with a few rotten boiled eggs and a teaspoon of spoiled salad dressing. It tastes good except for the rotten bits and in the end you are left with a bad taste in your mouth.” – Ivy Jolie