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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Paperback – May 5, 2009
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“Traditional without seeming stale, and romantic without being naive . . . It’s tempting to throw around terms like ‘gem’ when reading a book like this. But Guernsey is not precious. . . . This is a book for firesides or long train rides. It’s as charming and timeless as the novels for which its characters profess their love.”—San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“[The] characters step from the past radiant with eccentricity and kindly humour. [The] writing, with its delicately offbeat, self-deprecating stylishness, is exquisitely turned.”—The Guardian (U.K.)
“I’ve never wanted to join a club so desperately as I did while reading Guernsey. . . . [The novel] is a labor of love and it shows on almost every page.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“I could not put the book down. I have recommended it to all my friends.”—Newsday
“A jewel . . . Poignant and keenly observed, Guernsey is a small masterpiece about love, war, and the immeasurable sustenance to be found in good books and good friends.”—People
“A book-lover's delight, an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary.”—Chicago Sun-Times
“A sparkling epistolary novel radiating wit, lightly worn erudition and written with great assurance and aplomb.”—The Sunday Times (London)
“Cooked perfectly à point: subtle and elegant in flavour, yet emotionally satisfying to the finish.”—The Times (London)
“A sweet, sentimental paean to books and those who love them. . . . It affirms the power of books to nourish people enduring hard times.”—The Washington Post Book World
“[A] marvelous debut . . . This is a warm, funny, tender, and thoroughly entertaining celebration of the power of the written word.”—Library Journal
“A poignant, funny novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. . . . A treat.”—The Boston Globe
“A sure winner.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Delightful . . . One of those joyful books that celebrates how reading brings people together.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have written a wondrous, delightful, poignant book— part Jane Austen, part history lesson. The letters aren't addressed to you, but they are meant for you. It's a book everyone should read. An absolute treasure.”—Sarah Addison Allen, author of Garden Spells
About the Author
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I’ve always had to wonder when I read a novel comprised entirely of letters. I think, well, it’s either going to be very, very good or will peter out after the second chapter and become tedious, repetitive, and boring.
I’m happy to say that “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer falls definitely into the former and not the latter category. It is very, very good, and (if I had to assess why) it’s because Shaffer tells a story and stays in command of the story to the very end. And the story itself is a dramatic one and based upon a recent historic event – the occupation of the Channel Islands by the German army during World War II.
The Channel Islands lie just off the coast of France but have allegiance to Great Britain. Technically, they are not part of Great Britain, but their inhabitants sound (to an American ear) as British as any Briton. They were owned by Duke William of Normandy, who retained ownership after he invaded and won Britain in 1066.
Because of the proximity to France, the British Army and Navy couldn’t defend the islands, so they became as much German-occupied territory as France and the rest of Europe. Their people were treated much the same as the rest of Europe. Which means very badly indeed.
But it’s now 1946, and writer Juliet Ashton, fresh from a rather surprising success as the author of a collection of her funny wartime columns for the Spectator, is casting about for a new project. She’s previously written a biography of Anne Bronte, which wasn’t exactly a bestseller. So, the success of her collection of columns is welcome news indeed.
Juliet receives a letter from a Guernsey resident named Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer interested in, of all things, the 19th century writer Charles Lamb. He has come to own a book of Lamb’s writings originally owned by Juliet (her name and former London address – bombed by a V2 rocket late in the war – is written in the inside cover. She begins a correspondence with Mr. Adams, and soon finds herself writing to other members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a reading group formed rather hurriedly (as in, on the spot) when the Germans found a group of Guernsey residents out after curfew.
In London, Juliet finds herself being amorously and rather relentlessly pursued by a wealthy American, but she isn’t sure if she’s interested or not. So a trip to Guernsey is just the ticket to work on a book and escape the would-be lover. And it is on Guernsey that Juliet discovers but never meets the founder of the society, Catherine McKenna, whose story becomes a story of the war, how people survived the occupation, and how they didn’t.
Shaffer, who worked as an editor and librarian and also in bookshops, died in 2008. The novel was completed by her niece, Annie Barrows, the author of the “Ivy & Bean” and other children’s stories and the novel “The Truth According to Us” (2015). And while I want to tell you that you always want to see an author enjoy a well-deserved success, there is something about all of this that fits the author’s story and the story she tells.
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” will make you laugh and make you cry. You will be struck silent at times. You will see how people cope in horrible circumstances, and what they to do help (and hurt) each other. And you will learn the difference books can make (including being used for kindling, but that’s another story for another letter).
Oh, before I forget, the book’s been made into a movie of the same title, coming soon (I hope) to a theater near you! It stars Lily James (of Downton Abbey and Darkest Hour fame) as Juliet, and there are several other Downton Abbey stars in it.
Sincerely and with warm regards,
Pigs end up playing a major role in this wonderful little book when the author connects with some villagers on Guernsey Island, who have recently emerged from German occupation during World War II. She learns how they outsmarted the Germans, who were fussy over farm animals, according to one explanation of how The Guernsey Literary Society came about in the first place. Spoiler alert: it was because of pigs.
Their mischievous pig roast compelled them to keep up appearances as the literary society they indeed were not. Yet, as one of the inciters of the pig roast writes, “Once two members read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight.” Their original naughtiness eventually morphed into a sweet band of friends who “read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.”
The characters are vivid and easy to love, like the characters in Foyle’s War and 84 Charring Cross Road, carrying on despite the undertow of war rumbling beneath them. The writing delighted me, because so much of it made the familiar, ordinary things of life fresh and beautiful and fun (like when the author confesses really like to leave London to live on Guernsey instead). She writes, “The only thing I’d truly miss about London are Sidney and Susan, the nearness to Scotland, new plays, and Harrods Food Hall.” Refreshing: a little bit naughty, a little bit spice. My favorite line in the whole book is her contention that, “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”
I consider it a compliment to say that this was such a good book, it may have ruined me for whatever one’s next!
Lucky me, I got to read it while visiting Guernsey!
Was this book worth the Kindle Price? $8.63 USD. Yup, absolutely!
Is it a page turner? Yes.
Did I want to be reading this book when I wasn't reading this book? Yes.
Did I learn anything from this book?
Yes, loved all the information so subtly provided about the German occupation. It's like a history book without the boring bits.
Did I think about this book after I was finished reading.
Yes, it has stayed with me. It's been a month since I put it down but I still do think of it. Luckily, I was able to get a fridge magnet of the book cover while in Guernsey.
My only negative comment - now this may sound petty as I really did enjoy all the books and all the characters! But I did notice they all have the same voice. We don't all write letters in the same style and this was not reflected in the book. All the letters were written in the same particular witty style. Made for good fun reading but I did find that a bit strange as like I said, we do all write differently!
Top international reviews
I’m not going to say anymore as I don’t want to spoil anything. But please, if you enjoy an entertaining novel, give this one a try. I loved it!
Dawsey Adams owns a farm and likes the writings of Charles Lamb. This is a theme of the book that everyone has a favourite author. For Isola she talks to Juliet of her biography of Anne Bronte. Eben, a tombstone carver, likes Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens. Clovis wants to learn poetry to impress a lady and looks to Catullus a Roman Poet and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. John Brooker who takes on the persona of his employer Tobias Penn-Piers, reads the letters of Seneca. The founder of the society is Elizabeth, who we never see as she is captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Dawsey tells the reader how during the war the Germans confiscated all food provisions including any livestock. When Mrs Maugery calls him and tells him she has a pig and bring a butcher’s knife they gather the neighbour’s and have a feast. Coming home after curfew a little worse for wear they are caught by the Germans who demand to know where they have been. Elizabeth proclaims they have been at the inaugural meeting of the literary society. They had been reading Elizabeth and her German Garden, a book which I’m sure doesn’t exist, but placated the guards.
In part one Juliet remains in the UK and the letters are sent back and forth. She also gains an admirer in the form of Markham Reynolds, a suave, intelligent American who sends her flowers and takes her out to dinner. Their relationship reaches a crunch point when he asks her to marry him and she is not sure. When she travels to Guernsey we see his more controlling side. This is a beautiful contrast to the simplicity and unassuming nature of the islanders.
Each character has their own use of language and some are more opinionated than others. Adele Addison disapproves of Elizabeth due to her liaison with a German Officer, but Remy who resides in the detainment camp with her speaks of her courage. Isola speaks of men being more interesting in books than in real life and is dismayed someone has not introduced her to Jane Austen. Dawsey is portrayed as not very well educated, especially when contrasted with Juliet’s American suitor, but he still reads Charles Lamb.
Witty and engaging this is a beautiful easy read, celebrating the courage of an island through the eyes of its residents and the curiosity of a writer. What makes this more poignant is the fact that the author died before the final edit and it was her niece that completed the book.
After an hour or so reading, I felt that I knew the characters and was hooked. Alongside the deprevations of war, the cruelty in the concentration camps and the duplicity of a few traitorous locals selling information to the Germans for favours, there is much humour and a slowly emerging love story.
Nice is not a nice word, but very occasionally it is exactly the right word. This is a nice book.
It's probably not a true story but will be part truths about things that really happened at that time. This is being made into a film with big name actors shortly, so get a heads up on it now
I only purchased this book because of the title - it intrigued me - then shortly after purchasing I saw a trailer for the movie so figured I'd better move it up my "to be read" list. I wasn't aware that this was an epistolary novel on purchasing and this did throw up a couple of issues for me - not the nature of the reading or the layout of the book, but rather the fact that the only distinct voice was that of Juliet. The letters to her from all other sources do not have a sufficiently distinct "voice" to make the book really work; the one exception being Adelaide Addison and even then you can still feel the author(s) beneath the words.
What the format does do very well is give you a sense of time and place that the events are unfolding in. It also allows multiple threads to unfold at the same time without ever really blurring them in to each other. I did feel in places that 21st Century morality had been superimposed on to the year immediately post the second world war (this was particularly true in the case of how one character's homosexuality was dealt with). On the whole the time period did feel generally realistic and Juliet Ashton makes for an exceptionally likeable protagonist.
What the authors have done well is to gently introduce us to themes and ideas without beating us over the head with them. The overarching thread is one that deals with the German Occupation of Guernsey and the privations suffered by the Islanders at the time. This gently unfolds in the form of letters to Juliet from first Dawsey Adams and then a complete avalanche from the other members of the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, each giving their experience of the Occupation and how the books they read helped them through and brought them together as a community.
It is a rich book that I enjoyed but somehow I felt a little let down by it all in the end. I would recommend it to another reader but it doesn't make my re-read list.
The main character, Juliet, is likeable and is the pivot around which the story revolves. Whilst there is a romance within the story, this is almost a sub-plot to the story of the brave and stoical islanders.
Whilst I loved the book, I'm not sure I want to see the film in case it lessens the impact.
I was initially a little unsure because I watched the first 30 minutes of the film… Why just the first 30 minutes you say? Because it was sodding terrible, so after that I decided enough was enough, I wasn’t wasting any more of my time, and turned it off. I honestly want a refund. It was utter poop. Why, just why, did the actress playing Juliet keep giggling for no reason? And having now read the book, why on earth did they make the relationship between Juliet and Markham seem so happy? Why weren’t there people there to greet her on the pier when she arrived in Guernsey? They changed the storyline substantially, which made it poop, and then it made no sense whatsoever. No. Just no…
And then the book arrived…
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society is poignant, moving, romantic, sweet, and uplifting. It’s also unflinching, and relatively historically accurate – there are definitely some hard-hitting moments. It was utterly unlike anything else I’ve read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I fell in love with the characters, and through the use of the letter form you got a real sense of their voice. They were each so unique, and beautifully crafted, and the relationships between them had a very tangible warmth. I enjoyed the way they grew through the story arc, and I thought the pacing on that was perfect. You want to feel that things happened “naturally”. I particularly liked what was left out of the letters. I think it added to the authenticity, as you felt the letters might actually have been curated to tell a story. I also think, when it comes to the characters, that you could put together a case for feminist undertones. But it was pretty subtle. You didn’t feel at any point that the author had a point to make. It was all about telling a good story. But the touches of feminism, and of LGBT, gave it a modernity and timelessness which I think historical fiction needs in order to be relevant.
I loved the historical details, which not only gave the story a stage and a backdrop, but were integral to the actual plot. The characters were just so well contextualised, but yet didn’t feel dated. It was casually tactile, in the careful use of snippets of detail about the way things looked, smelled, felt. Too much detail, you start to wonder if anyone would actually put that in a letter; too little, and you lose the interconnectedness between place, time, and plot. It was skilfully done. I think I fell in love with the place, as much as the characters. Seriously, I’m going to Guernsey now… This book has clearly done wonders for their tourism industry…
The romance was heart warming and hopeful. And handled in a way that felt authentic, but wasn’t too touchy-feely. I really don’t have time for people emoting all over the show… Not my cup of tea! This wasn’t in any way over the top. I think what was more special though, was the friendship element to the plot. I don’t read a lot of books where adult friendships are given real space… I thought that was beautiful.
It had a predictability about it, which I found comforting. When you’re rooting for a character, you want it all to work out. But along the way, it was by no means all happy endings and there were a few little surprises.
This was one of those books that touches you. Skip the movie, read the book. But definitely read the book!
Juliet a journalist/writer/reader receives a letter from Dawsey a man who has picked up a book she read and lost as a young woman. He also enjoys the works from Charles Adams and the book is a mixture of correspondence not just from him but from her to her friends, publisher (friend) and what slowly becomes friendships from those of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
This story made me sit up and pay attention to the suffering of those during and after the German occupation in Guernsey and the after affects of those on the island and in London also.
I won't give away the story but it is wonderful to read and I loved it all so much that I now intend to visit Guernsey as I have Jersey.
History needs to not be repeated and we have to learn from our past.
In fact, the story is told (very eloquently) as correspondence. The authors write witty, entertaining letters with a beautifully light touch. This is the book's great strength.
It's great weakness is that it is a romance that slavishly conforms to all the usual conventions. The hero is the 'strong, silent type', a comedy of errors and misunderstandings delays the lovers declaring their feelings for each other until the last few pages. It's entirely obvious how the book is going to end from less than half way through. There were some good laugh-out-loud moments, but equally there were others so syrupy (eg around the curly haired toddler) that I occasionally felt myself cringe. I'm a little negative because I rarely read romances and hadn't been expecting one when I picked this up.
Despite the predictability I enjoyed the read.
William Irvine [Author - The Polygamist]
John Booker's letter in May 1946 was so very sad, and then the last line of that letter, made me smile a bitter sweet kind of smile. I don't enjoy reading about the war (I find it boring and unnecessarily upsetting- why make yourself sad??), and I don't think I will make it a habit, but it was interesting and humbling to read the stories the islanders all shared.
I dislike- War stories, Love stories, Stories where there isn't a killer to catch, Stories where everyone is nice and unrealistic.... This book was all these things, but I think it is one of my new favourites. I am dismayed to learn that the author is no longer around to write more, although I suspect I'd not enjoy another, and that this is a one time thing for me. This isn't my book, I've to give it back now. But I think I may buy my own copy and re-read often.
When Remy writes to the Society about Elizabeth, it was so sad. So very sad, but it just affirmed my liking of Elizabeth even more.
When Sidney told Isola he was homosexual, I was so surprised! SO, surprised! I was rooting for Juliet and Sidney to get together in the end (even though I love Dawsey), and this just shattered that dream!! I had to stop reading for a moment to digest that it wouldn't happen. I love Sidney, and I love the relationship him and Juliet have.
Today, we still live in fractured, unpleasant times. I write this on a visit to Hong Kong, once a peaceful jewel. Politicians still start wars, lie out of ignorance or malevolence, and steal and cheat with impunity, but somehow survive their malfeasance. Thanks largely to misrule, cruelty, and death have never left us. The enemies of liberty and freedom are never long vanquished. It was nice to escape into these delightful letters for a few glorious hours while enjoying the beauty of Victoria Harbour (that is not a spelling mistake. Her Majesty spelt it so).
PS Error Page 109: "Isola told me you that might come to Guernsey.”