Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Co-Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It's shameful to admit how much I drug my feet about reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. First, Caren suggested it and I made up some reason not to read it. Then, my mom wanted me to read it with her and I grumbled about it. I had no good reason except that it was about World War II and books about WWII depress me. Not a virtuous reason, I know. I finally picked up a copy and was delighted to find out that everybody was right and I was wrong not to read it.

Guernsey is written as a collection of letters from author Juliet Ashton to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey in the English channel. During the war, Guernsey was occupied by Germany and as the letters continue back and forth to these different characters you get a pretty clear picture of what that occupation was like. In an act of defiance and because of a need of hope and connection, some people on the island form a reading society named the same as the title of the book. Juliet mostly communicates with the members of the Society, but there are a few colorful additions from other islanders. After some time Juliet decides she must go to the island in order to be able to write an accurate book about the island's occupation, but that's only an excuse. By then she loves the people and loves their stories.

As always with our co-reviews, we don't hold back about characters or plot. I promise you you'll wish you had read this book, so if you'd like to wait on some of the surprises, come back later.

Jenny: One thing that surprised me in this book was how funny it was. This is a book about war and starvation, cruelty and despair. But it wasn't really about those things. I mean, those were parts of these people's lives, not only the islanders but Londoners like Juliet. The book is more about happiness and connection between people despite war and all the horror that comes with it. By the end of the book, I knew these people. I was friends with them and loved them and cried over them. The characters had such a strong connection with each other, but they also formed a bond with me.

I loved how much the characters loved books. Juliet's poor collection underneath rubble from a bomb hitting her flat broke my heart. The islanders discovery of books, especially those characters who were reluctant to join such a silly thing as a literary society, brought joy amidst all their trials. Their choices of books sometimes cracked me up, like the one women who only read a book she wrote herself and was about delicious food that none of them had access to. Her reading of the book to the group nearly caused a riot.

Caren: I am not a big war novel reader either, but this book came with such high recommendations that I figured it was worth a shot. And like you, I was delighted with the lighthearted humor and the very human characters portrayed. I was also amazed at how well the story could be crafted within the limitations of letters. A story is much stronger when it's told with immediacy, and the letter style put the reader in danger of being too far away from the story to get really wrapped up in it. But Shaffer and Barrows did an admirable job of using dialogue and strong character voices to really invite the reader into the story and make it hard to put down.

I, too, loved hearing how literature had changed the Society member's lives. Whether they were touched by a certain passage, committed to a certain work, or just learned poetry to try to woo the woman they loved, their lives were brightened by their exposure to the classics. One of my favorite passages is when Eben Ramsey is first writing to Juliet and tells her that his favorite sentence of Shakespeare is "The bright day is done, and we are for the dark." He says,
I wish I'd known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them -- and come off ships down the harbor! All I could think of was d---- them, d---- them, over and over. If I could have thought the words "the bright day is done and we are for the dark," I'd have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance -- instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.
What a beautiful description of the power of language!

Jenny: You put it perfectly. It was horrible circumstances that made the Society come into existence, but at least it did! At least the members had this in their lives! They were given power and beauty through those books.

The one character who is kind of a mystery and a source of fascination by Juliet is Elizabeth McKenna. As you read the letters, you start to put together a picture of the person and what she did for the people on the island. Love her or hate her (like one pernicious letter-writer was determined to do) you can't doubt she made an impact. She helped people at every turn, she loved someone that deserved it, and she left behind a precious little girl. She was obviously loved by members of the Society and Juliet came to love her too, despite never having known her. That made it so much harder to find out that she had died.

Juliet wrote to Sidney about her death and, if I still had my book on me I could quote it exactly, said something along the lines of how ridiculous it was to weep over someone you had never even met. Juliet felt like she did know her because because of the Society members and took it hard when she learned of her death. I was holding out hope that she was still alive in the prison she was shipped off to and we would soon get to meet her. I felt much like Juliet, that I had lost someone without ever having met them.

Caren: Yes, I felt that way about Elizabeth too. I was really hoping that with such a strong spirit and commitment to life that she would have survived the war, and it broke my heart to learn of her death. Though at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder what Elizabeth would have thought of Juliet. Would they have been great friends? Or would Guernsey have been too small for two such women? While I hated that she died, a small part of me was glad that we would never have to find out the answer to that question. Juliet could continue to love Elizabeth almost like a sister without the possible pain of someday being disappointed if Elizabeth didn't feel the same way toward her.

So, did you see the romance with Dawsey coming? All along I was rooting for Sidney since they clearly shared such a great friendship and respect for each other. So when she started developing feelings for Dawsey I wasn't very enthused. Until Sidney revealed that he was gay, and my hopes for him were completely dashed! But that made it easier to get over him and then I thought the developing romance with Dawsey was a sweet ending to the story. Very Jane Austen!

Jenny: Amen and amen. I was totally rooting for Sidney but then when he was deemed ineligible, I realized that Shaffer had been kind of hinting around about Dawsey. I loved loved loved the ending and how she and Dawsey ended up together. And Isola's involvement in that was hilarious. I didn't really buy anything between Dawsey and Remy but Juliet's despair over their possible romance sure gave away her feelings.

Isola had it right when she said "reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones”. This definitely qualifies in the good book category and makes it into my list of the best books I've read this year. Maybe in the last few years.

Caren: Isn't that the truth? I loved that statement too! This is definitely a book for people who love books. But even if you're just a casual reader, you'll get hooked on these people and their stories. While some of the war details are disturbing, it's not because they are graphic, but rather because you come to feel so deeply for these people that you hurt for them over even the slightest indignity! It really brought out the human element of the war, including portraying the Germans as something more than just the vile enemy. While there were certainly those who fit that description, I was most intrigued by the accounts of German soldiers who went out of their way to be kind and friendly to the islanders, and the friendships (and even romances) that developed as a result. How fascinating and complex human relationships can be!

And speaking of relationships, I couldn't help but mourn the decline of the letter after reading this book. Don't get me wrong, I love email and think texting definitely has its perks, but there was a certain eloquence conveyed in the written word when people communicated long distance via letters. And even now, doesn't a handwritten note just give you a little thrill that doesn't translate quite the same to your inbox? My sister-in-law recently decided to write some letters to people who have touched her life over the years and had some amazing experiences as a result. Even though she hadn't had any contact with them in years, they all wrote back with wonderful accounts of how much her letter meant to them and how it was the perfect antidote on a particularly hard day, etc. I was so moved by the stories she shared that I wanted to try it too. But so far my letter count is.....well, zero. But I felt newly motivated after reading this book!

Jenny: That's funny you mention letter-writing because I've been trying to convince my children of the virtues of writing letters. If I can credit myself with one good quality, it's writing letters. Before e-mail I was a great correspondent, and since e-mail I'm even better. My kids will never have to hand-write a letter if they don't want to but I'd hate it if they never take that opportunity. The only thing that makes me sad is that even if you write a letter, there's no guarantee you'll get one back. It's a lost art, that letter-writing business, and people don't feel that obligation to write back any more.

On that topic of letters and books, there's another great book written as a series of letters called The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I read it for a book club some years ago and it was fascinating, especially how the two authors put the letters together. Definitely worth reading.

Caren: Oh, I'll have to write that one down. Funny that it was a co-author project and so was Guernsey. Maybe you have to have two different perspectives to get the different voices right. Whatever it is, they did a fantastic job and I'm recommending it to anyone who appreciates a moving story, clever humor, and happy endings!

Jenny: I'd have to fully agree there. Give it a try!


  1. I just read this for our book club and loved reading your review (since only ONE other person had actually read the book in time -- there's a long hold list for it at the library! I went ahead and bought it.) I loved it! WWII is always a favorite of mine but I get depressed reading dreary books without hope -- but this one was a very hopeful story indeed.

    I was surprised by the Dawsey romance, but in retrospect I shouldn't have been -- I wasn't rooting for Sidney (I knew there had to be some reason they hadn't gotten together yet) and sure wasn't rooting for Mark (duh). I wish Dawsey's character could have been fleshed out a little more though, and I thought the ending felt way too abrupt -- but that's my only complaint. Otherwise the book was filled with such great wisdom and stories ... great book.

  2. I got talked into buying this one, now I'm lots more enthusiastic about starting it!

  3. Just finished this a few days ago and loved it.

    How true, your comments about letter-writing. I used to have pen-pals and I loved writing letters when I was a bit younger. Recently, the only person I would hand write letters to was my grandma, but now she's got email and keeps up with my blog so I feel less inclined to sit down with a pencil and paper.

    I, too, enjoyed the ending and how Isola was so wrong about the romance. Didn't you come to love the members of the literary society? I sure did.