Book Review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
If you are looking for a captivating, warm and gooey read with just the right mix of fragrant spices and a touch of pathos blended in, then this is just the book for you!
What a frivolous, eccentric and weird name for a book! That was my immediate reaction when I heard the name of the book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. True to its name it was all that and a lot more. Friendship, impact of war, life on a small quaint island, wit, humour and a love for literature are all seamlessly woven together in an old-fashioned exchange of letters to create a pleasant, sunny, poignant and memorable effect.
When a friend suggested this book to me I had my reservations. I had never attempted reading an epistolary novel before. A novel entirely conveyed in the form of letters. How very odd and unusual!? That was my initial thought. A writing style that raised my suspicions about its power to draw me in as a reader.
With lingering reluctance I plodded through the first few letters, trying to sink my mind into the plot unfolding in the form of letters. After nearing the end of the letter from the Guernsey Islander, mentioning the literary club, is when the charm and magic of the narrative began to seep through me unbidden. Soon I was breezing through the book at a steady pace effortlessly piecing together the story from the delightful avalanche of letters exchanged between the various characters. As the letters flow back and forth, a plethora of realistic, spirited and vulnerable characters emerge from a narrative that is whimsical and witty, yet grounded in the harrowing reality of post-war period. The characters’ unique personalities are etched through the distinct writing styles in their individual letters. The letters manage to evoke a myriad of emotions as the content ranges from warm, funny, witty, serious to tragic and moving.
It is a story that is set in the period surrounding the WW2 timeline. With a generous touch of warmth, humor, romance, wit, adventure and pathos, the author effectively strings together friendship and the love for literature and food with the horrors of war and post-war poignancy, trauma and recovery to create a rather startling and extraordinary effect.
The story begins with Juliet Ashton, a moderately successful author and writer of a British humour column in her early thirties. Her life moves at a predictable and comfortable pace, interspersed with some drama, after the uncertainties and destruction brought about by war destroyed her flat, reducing it to rubble, forcing her to move into a temporary residence. To add to the post war return-to-normalcy, she is courted by an American publisher, Mark Reynolds. After having being under a recent spell of ennui, she basks in the fawning attention showered on her by Mark, while she swears allegiance to the current publishing house she is associated with. One that is run by her best friend Sophie’s brother Sidney. Both of them have been a steady and positive presence in her life, since she had made her acquaintance with Sophie, on entering boarding school at 12 years of age, after having been orphaned and proving to be too much to handle for her uncle.
Unexpectedly a letter arrives addressed to her from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey one of the English Channel Islands. Dawsey has chanced upon a Charles Lamb’s book previously owned by her and writes to her to express his delight and keen interest in reading more of the author’s works. This gives rise to a string of letters back and forth between Dawsey and Juliet. She learns the name of the literary club that Dawsey is a part of and the unusual origin of its name, which is the same as the title of the book. A bizarre name that instantly piques her curiosity. She is captivated and requests permission to learn more about the club and its members and to write about it and publish it. It sparks off engaging conversations between her and the other members of the literary club, unfolding in a series of letters as she starts by convincing them of her trustworthiness and promises to keep her writing serious, without belittling the story surrounding the club, considering her main genre till then has been humour. In the process she is introduced to the lovely and eccentric group of members and also hears about an ebullient, courageous and gentle woman who is the founder and driving force behind the literary club, Elizabeth McKenna. Though Elizabeth makes her appearance only as a memory shared in the various letters, yet she leaves a resounding impact and is a tangible and strong presence in the story.
All this serves as a writer’s muse for Juliet, one that culminates in leading her to the beguiling island of Guernsey, the place that is home to the club and its members. It is portrayed as a charming place that was touched by war and loss, yet remains a beautiful island made special by a set of people who infuse their lives and those around them with hope, courage, resilience, laughter and love.
As the story progresses it lingers on the harrowing experiences of war and its effect on adults and kids as relayed by the islanders, balanced with the light-hearted theme of an unlikely and lasting friendship that develops between quirky and endearing characters brought together by the vagaries of war, fondness for Elizabeth, a love for literature in its various forms and food.
A surprising and unexpected special guest appearance by a very eminent author sets ablaze the novel that is already crackling with exuberance and luminosity.
Definitely a recommended read for the heart-warming and unique reading experience it renders effectively.
Looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation of this book to grace the silver screen soon.