Title : The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author : Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows
Genre : Contemporary
Narrators : Paul Baymer, Susan Duerden, Roselyn Landor, John Lee, Juliet Mills
Publisher : Random House Audio
Listening Length : 9 hrs 39 min
Source : Library
Rating : 3.5/5
Juliet Ashton, a young author, has been offered an assignment from the Times, to write about the “love of reading”. As she is scouting about for material, she is contacted via letter by Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer on Guernesy, who has found Juliet’s name and address in a book of Charles Lamb she once owned. They begin a correspondence, and she learns of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, which came into being because of the German occupation. The story gets curiouser and curiouser, letter by letter, and very soon Juliet is drawn into Dawsey’s world, familiar and fond of each of the Society members, as though they were her own dear friends.
Juliet’s friendship-by-letter is frowned upon by her then beaux, handsome publisher Mark Reynolds. Old friends Sophie and Sidney Stark lend their contrasting views and after all, Juliet must do as she thinks – such is her character. The Guernsey Society makes a great subject for her essay in the Times, but is that it? And what will come of this long-winded friendship, if it survives?
This book was written by librarian Mary Ann Shafer, and completed after her death by her niece, children’s author Annie Barrows. It comes as no surprise then that this is a book about book-lovers, and the love of reading, people bound together by the power of the written word. And as befits this theme, our heroine Juliet Ashton is an opinionated young lady, who prizes her books above all; an engagement to a non-book-worshipper has been hastily averted in the past. Now she has her friends, Sophie and Sidney, and writes and reads and travels to promote her latest book “Izzy Bickerstaff goes to war”, a compilation of her war columns.
The book is an epistolary novel, narrated via letters, and later in the first person, from Juliet’s point of view. At the beginning this is a little confusing, since I’m listening to, not reading this, and am trying to sort all the letter-writers out, from Sophie and her brother, to Juliet, to all the many characters from Guernsey. It does settle down when you get a handle on the many characters – I greatly appreciated the different narrators for the different characters – but it takes a while.
Even though this is a novel of the 1940s with the Second World War recently ended, the authors manage to create quite a balmy, pastoral setting for the book. Juliet is ensconsed in her London flat, and since she requires little more than books to survive, finds herself pleasantly happy with a few new clothes, some travel and the company (and letters) of good friends. She has a pleasant, curious personality, a quick wit and good humor. Her friends from Guernesy also come across, via their letters, as good, considerate people, some more eccentric than others. Of course there is the war, and we have constant reminders of its catastrophic fall-outs and the cruelties meted out on innocent people.
With that said I did find the characters, except maybe Juliet, shallowly etched. We never quite get to see what they think, only how they appear to Juliet. These nuance-less characters are also a little too good and sweet. It is not that I don’t believe that such people exist, but to have all characters in the book (except one or two) be this full of the milk of human kindness, and live within shouting distance of each other, is a little hard to believe.
Juliet herself, while a good person, is glib and nosy and forever engaged in “smart” conversations; “smartness” is good in small doses, but when every other letter from her begins with a flippantly clever remark, it can be a bit much. It is almost like the authors suffered from a childlike suspension of belief, refusing to acknowledge the less charitable aspects of their characters, creating a fantastical society populated only by the very, very good, and writing a story that ends with “happily ever after”.
Still, this remains a largely pleasant novel. I was drawn in mostly by the strength of the characters, their beauty and grace and courage under hard circumstances, and the way they still keep their goodness intact even after all they have been forced to endure. It is in that sense, hopeful even, because you know from these characters that the human spirit finds a way; it bends but it does not break.