I know I’m having a good holiday when I race through three books, and am set to embark on a fourth. One of these, The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society begun by Mary Ann Shaffer and edited by her niece Annie Barrows, was recommended by my mother-in-law.
I’d heard of the book before, but hadn’t read a review, and was wary of it for two reasons. One, because I thought it had been on a worst-of-the-year list I’d read for last year. (I think I had it confused with The Lace Reader.) Two, the title sounded precious to me. But when my MIL said it was one of the best books she’d read recently, and after I perused the many blurbs of praise, most from reputable sources, I decided to dive in. Fewer than 24 hours later, I came up for air, well pleased.
TGLaPPPS is pleasantly reminiscent of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, which was clearly an influence. It’s an epistolary novel, with author Juliet Ashton as its fulcrum. Juliet has recently had a collection of her WWII humor columns published. While she in on the exhausting book tour, she meets up with a handsome American suitor, Markham V. Reynolds, Jr. and receives an odd letter from a man who lives on the isle of Guernsey, which had been recently occupied by the Germans. Dawsey Adams writes Juliet that he’s come into a copy of a book she used to own, Selected Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, and wonders if she can help him find more by its author.
So begins Juliet’s correspondence with the members of the eponymous literary society of the title.
I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.
Her fascination with the islanders and with the history of the German occupation grows so she eventuallly goes to visit the island, in an attempt to find a new topic to write on.
The book borders on twee, sometimes precariously so, but manages, I thought, to stay on the side of emotional truth. There are things that are sweet and wonderful, but they are balanced by as many of cruelty and hardship. In the end, the authors have created a group of people I was happy to spend time with, and would be glad to be in conversation about books with. And the details of Guernsey’s occupation were a new window into many familiar facts of WWII.
In the end, this is a cheering, uplifting book, easy to read, but with enough emotional and historical heft to make it more than a mere confection.