As London is emerging from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton discovers her next subject in a book club on Guernsey--a club born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi after its members are discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island.
It took me perhaps forty pages to fall completely in love with it. Epistolary novels are not usually my reading material of choice, but Shaffer's letter-writing is such a joy that it is difficult to imagine this story being told in any other format. The tone is as warm and light as a potato peel soufflé, and the humour is simply uplifting. It continues to amaze me that a novel with so little plot can be so utterly readable – but it is. The readability comes not from the storyline, but from the simple beauty with which Shaffer renders the world of her story, and the irresistible sincerity and emotion with which she colours it. Indeed; when Shaffer attempts to give the plot an Oscar Wilde-related boost around forty pages from the end, it feels more than a little unnecessary. The characters, and the relationships between them, are already more than enough to make the read worthwhile.
The joys of Shaffer's characters are twofold. First: their diverse and endearing personalities, in which readers everywhere are sure to delight – and second: the way in which Shaffer presents them. Not content simply to describe them, (as an epistolary format would make it all too easy to do,) she introduces them first through their individual narrative voices, as they contribute their own letters to the book. Readers are allowed to form their own impressions, and the characters are all the more lifelike and realistic for it.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an absolute delight; a novel that will make you want to run to the nearest bookstore and join the first book club you find. I would recommend it to everybody. Boy, girl, young, old; everybody.
Vin: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have written a zippy little epistolary novel that takes us to Great Britain after World War II, when writer Juliet Ashton-
Kaion: Bah. Yet another ridiculous flighty female heroine whose qualities we are supposed to read as spirited and charmingly ahead-of-her-time and charming, instead of self-involved and silly.
Vin: Shush. She starts correspondence with some small island folks of Guernsey, who during the dark days of German occupation found the love of good books (and good food).
Kaion: And through the power of their super!quirky!antics! teach her how to become a better, deeper person.
Vin: There's nothing wrong with good cliche. And wacky common British folks is a good cliche, one that you enjoy, as evidenced by PBS-watching. And books. And you totally want some of that potato peel pie.
Kaion: I love all pie. But it doesn't count unless Shaffer/Barrows include a recipe (which they don't)... And ye gods, I'm sick of books that try to win over readers by talking so much about love of reading. It's transparently self-congratulatory. And there's a large difference between telling a cliche over again and what happens here, which is merely using *references* to cliche plots and classic literature in lieu of actual storytelling or characteri-
Vin: That's the nature of epistolary novels! To an extent they are relying on our abilities to fill in the blanks by existing 'around' the action rather than in the thick of it. It's a format that keeps it from ponderous-ness and gets a lot of information out there without being overburdened.
Kaion: It could stand to be a lot more burdened. With such broadly drawn characters (and don't even get me started on saint Elizabeth) characters, the historical content lacks the necessary gravitas. Total cotton candy, the first bite is sweet and ephemeral, but you're left hungry and feeling sticky and icky at dinnertime.
Vin: It's a purposeful lightness. Like popcorn: real starchy carbohydrates in wildly palatable form. The point is the characters have drawn on the transcendent and grounded qualities of literature and human community in order to make peace with the atrocities of WWII.
Kaion: That's the intent, but the 'light' storylines are executed so predictable and the 'dark' so ineptly that the contrast is jarring, not moving. **Spoiler**, using a girl who is recovering from concentration camp as an additional misunderstanding in one of those awful love polygons is not charming.
Vin: I concede there are some misteps in the unnecessary romantic storyline. But- but the writers could've easily written the story without any content. They mean well in attempting to integrating real acknowledgment of history with ultimately a hopeful message about the human spirit. Aren't there enough misanthropic novels in the world?
Kaion: Is it really well-meaning? Or is it really just pandering? Lemon meringue and Miss Marple truce?
Vin: Raise me a strong cup of chai, and it's already forgotten.
One day she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who lives on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. Juliet’s name and address are on the flyleaf of a second-hand volume of selected essays of Charles Lamb. He loves Lamb, and wishes to know the name and address of a second-hand bookseller in London so that he can buy more of Lamb’s works.
With this innocuous beginning, Juliet finds herself, through a remarkable exchange of letters, drawn into the lives of the people of Guernsey, especially through their experiences of the German occupation of the island.
The story is narrated entirely by letters, notes, and telegrams, most of them Juliet’s with the Islanders, but also with her best friend, her publisher, and her American suitor. There are some hilarious letters exchanged between other characters as well. It works brilliantly to tell this light-hearted, yet tender and at times grave and even tragic story. Shaffer is gentle in her story-telling, but effective in portraying the hardships of the occupation on Islanders, slaves brought over from Eastern Europe to be worked to death, and the Germans themselves. That is the main story. But clearly she has great love for Guernsey Island itself and its people.
This is not heavyweight, great literature. Some aspects of the story are glaringly obvious, but Shaffer’s style and her affection for her characters and setting overcome all that, and you just simply enjoy how the very obvious plays out. The story speaks to the ability of the human spirit to adapt and survive under the harshest circumstance, to the love of books and the really odd ways they can transform lives, and to the quiet courage that can stand evil just so long. Tender, warm-hearted, gentle, uplifting--these are all adjectives that can be used to describe the story, but none really capture its essence.
Just read it. You'll be glad you did.
I don't quite know why it isn't. Really, it should be. I mean, even the author's name screams 'fluffy chick-lit!' from the cover. But I liked meeting the characters. Most were quirky, all were well-drawn. Some were cliched, yes, particularly the sour spinster who interferes with other people's affairs, but most were likeable and rounded enough. I liked the settings - from shattered and grim post-war London to idyllic flower-strewn Guernsey. The plot held few surprises, but it didn't need to.
I'm not sure why I have to be so moderate and faintly damning in this review, since I enjoyed reading the book very much indeed. I wanted story, and I got it. I wanted character, and I got it. I didn't want War and Peace, and I didn't get it. I recommend it, truly, I do.
The fictional literary society of the title was formed of necessity to outwit the Germans during their World War II occupation of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, strategically located between Britain and France. A group of friends got caught socializing after curfew and one of their more enterprising number came up with the Society as an excuse. The Germans appeared interested, and so the friends kept it up just in case the enemy should drop in for “meetings,” which indeed they did.
Subsequently, the lives of all members were transformed by the books they read. Their correspondence with one author in particular, Juliet Ashton (whose letters, notes, and telegrams form the core of the book), changes them all yet again, after Juliet can't resist coming to Guernsey to meet the people who have been writing to her and learning more about them.
Some of the books discussed and the characters who read them include:
Dawsey Adams - Selected Essays of Elia; Biography of Charles Lamb
Isola Pribby – Wuthering Heights; Pride and Prejudice
Amelia Maugery – The Pickwick Papers
Eben Ramsey – Selections from Shakespeare
Clovis Fossey – Poems by Catullus
John Booker – The Letters of Seneca
Will Thisbee – Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present
Jonas Skeeter – The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Augustus Sarre – The Canterbury Tales
Kit Hellman – Elspeth the Lisping Bunny
Evaluation: Don’t let the quirky title of this lovely book, told in epistolary form, dissuade you from picking it up. You will enter an charming and inspirational world of bravery, hope, survival, literature, and above all, love.
This is a charming book, rich with the details of small town life mixed with the very real experiences of war. It’s a testament to the power of human capability and the richness of books. I thought Shaffer and Barrows did an excellent job in capturing the details. The events in Guersney feel like they could have actually happened, which makes me think like the writers did an impeccable job in research.
However, the characters, originally entertaining, did start to get boring towards the end. With a few exceptions everyone is so nice and welcoming that I started to feel like I was in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. The Guersney locals adored Juliet a bit too much for a woman they have only exchanged a few letters with. It was like Juliet could do no wrong. What happens with her and Kit in the end feels tacked on and cliche. I felt the same way about Elizabeth. In her absentia, the book made her out to be some sort of demi-goddess. Shaffer and Barrows were good at characterizing the nuances of the “bad guys” (the Germans and the unpleasant locals) but I thought the “good guys” could use more depth.
Review: I don't know why I let this book linger unread on my shelves for almost three years; it was a quick read, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Better, I was *charmed* every minute of it. I was not expecting a book about the German occupation of English territories during WWII to be so light-hearted, so witty, and so thoroughly charming. That's not to say it was all lightness, all the time; Shaffer doesn't dwell on the horrible parts of WWII and the Occupation, but neither does she ignore or gloss over them. She's also perfectly capable of writing pathos (mostly along the lines of "family is where you find it") as well as wit; I certainly got misty-eyed a time or two. But even when the subject got serious, the vivid, eccentric, and thoroughly lovable characters kept things from getting gloomy. And most of the time, Shaffer does a remarkable balancing act, keeping her story feeling real and immediate while maintaining her characters on the believable side of the dividing line between eccentricity and absurdity. There are tons of little bits of wit and sly humor peppered throughout, and every time I was forced to set the book down, I found I had a grin on my face.
The epistolary format is a tricky one, and Shaffer handles it quite well. There are of course elisions of details and scenes that would have appeared in normal prose fiction but that no one would have put in a letter, and while they're missed, it's more than compensated for by the bonus glimpse we get into our characters' heads from seeing the world through their eyes - and their pens. And while the letters are occasionally a bit long, they all sound like things an actual person would write in a real letter - something that often can go wrong in an epistolary or diary-formatted novel. The story line is occasionally fairly predictable, and the plot didn't offer up any real surprises... except the surprise of how easily I sank into the world of post-war Guernsey, and how much I fell in love with its inhabitants and their story. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for anyone looking for a new take on WWII historical fiction, people who like epistolary novels, or anyone interested in a witty and charming read.
The literary society of the title comes to her attention when she receives a letter from one of its founding members, a man named Dawsey who has discovered her name and address in a second-hand book, and asks that she send him the name of a bookshop in London so he can request something else on Charles Lamb, whom he loves. He notes in passing that there are no bookshops on Guernsey at all, all the books having been burned for firewood in the war.
That's how it starts - that's how the reader, as well as the narrator, are told something they did not know: that Guernsey, which is almost part of the UK and within ferry distance of Weymouth, was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War. It was attacked, it was terrorised, its children were sent away for five years, its people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps for stepping out of line. The horrors of the war are threaded out slowly, amidst the peaceful meandering of the epistolary format (the style reminds me very much of 84 Charing Cross Road), and this is where the novel really shines: the incongruous marriage of form and content makes the depiction of the war stories all the more poignant and affecting, and ultimately very sad. It's nicely done.
But at the same time - it's too short. At 250 pages in letter format, it's already very short for an adult novel, and all the more so when you come to the end and realise the themes haven't been explored nearly as thoroughly as they could have been. I couldn't help but think that the whole thing had been rounded off too quickly and tied off with far too neat a bow - war stories rarely do turn out so well, and it rankled slightly that a novel with such unexplored scope should have missed at its chance to be more than just charming but slight. Lovely in itself, yes, but could've been properly... literary.
(My edition, published April 2009, also has a horror of a schmaltzy afterword about the author, who died just before publication - I suspect that this has elevated the novel to a level of supposed profundity it doesn't actually achieve on its own merits. A great shame, but there we are.)
This story testifies to the power of literature to transcend time and place. The residents of Guernsey were without current news from the outside world for almost five years. However, it seems that the members of the literary society understood more about the outside world at the end of the war than at its beginning. Their world had expanded through the works of literature they read and shared with each other.
I thought the epistolary format worked well for this story. The letters didn't read as if they were all written by the same person, but rather they seemed to express each character's personality. By the end of the novel, I felt like I had a clear impression of each character. They seemed so real that I could imagine myself getting off of a boat or plane in Guernsey and running into their children and grandchildren all over the island. One apparent chronological error is the only thing that kept me from giving this book a 5 star rating.
The novel takes the form of a series of letters: between Juliet and island residents, and with other significant characters such as her publisher, and another long-time friend. The letters, being highly personal, express characters' thoughts and feelings in a deeper way than a traditional narrative. And various elements of the story are revealed in small bits, so that everything comes together only after reading several letters from different people. I found some aspects of the plot easy to predict, but in no way did this spoil the book for me. The writing style is breezy and full of humor, the characters are folks you could easily imagine and identify with, and the story is touching on many levels. This is a delightful, highly-recommended book.
Had I bought this book, I would be grumpy, but it was free so who cares? Anyone who likes romances will like this gentle, pleasurable afternoon companion of a book.
Juliet Ashton is an author who isn't sure what her new book is about, she just knows she doesn't want to write about World War 2 anymore after covering the news in a lighthearted manner under the pseudonym "Izzy Bickerstaff." Then, she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey who lives on Guernsey Island and happens to own one of her books (a collection of essays by Charles Lamb) secondhand, and wants to know if she can recommend any bookstores in London. He mentions in passing that he began reading because of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a group started during the German occupation. Told in letters between Juliet, her editor, her publicist, her best friend Sophie, and eventually a whole host of characters from Guernsey, this is a heartwarming tale filled with hope and eccentric folk, even though the war is still very much a part of their lives.
One of my favorite books of the year.
I think I tried not to like the book and initially I had some help. The story is told in correspondence centered on Juliet Ashton, a post WWII novelist who is tired of writing her successful series of novels and scouting for a new subject. Several successful novels have been written with this somewhat stilted format including 84, Charing Cross Road (also having a literary connection) and Letters From Yellowstone. As I made initial progress, 30-40 pages in, cutesy was still on my mind, but I was starting to sort out the characters and had a good sense of an emerging plot. By the time I turned the last page (275) I realized I had enjoyed the book immensely, despite cutesy and despite the format.
The plot begins to center on how the Guernsey Islanders survived the German occupation during WWII. (Despite being a part of Great Britain and in the middle of the English Channel, the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands and cut off all communication with Britain.) Aware of their pending occupation the Islanders bundled their children off to Britain and hunkered down expecting the worst. As Juliet begins to uncover this story in her correspondence and the characters emerge, you find yourself in the grips of a compelling plot and caring about these rare characters on the island.
As for the odd title? Well, the “Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society” was a cover-up for the group who were attempting to subvert the Nazis. But, it ended up drawing people together for many reasons, including literary.
An excellent, innovative debut for this aunt-niece author duo.
This book is a collection of letters written to and from the main characters. Juliet was a famous writer who wrote witty columns during the German bombing of London. While looking for new material for a book, she received a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey – a small island in the English Channel. Through their correspondence, and her letters to other Guernsey residents, she learned of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – a book club formed during the German occupation of Guernsey. Fascinated, Juliet eventually traveled to Guernsey to learn more about the lives of these people during the occupation.
Colorful characters drove this story along, and everyone had a story to tell. Juliet was fun-loving, endearing and purely likeable. Her publisher, Steven, and best friend, Susan, emerged as supportive and helped the reader learn more about Juliet. The Guernsey residents were real characters, from the quiet Dawsey and grandmotherly Amelia to the head-feeling Isola and sullen Kit.
Learning about the German occupation of Guernsey was eye opening for me. I was not aware that Germany held the Channel Islands until reading this book. I gained an appreciation for their troubles – lack of food, medicine and fuel – all while cohabitating with the enemy. The heart-wrenching part was to hear stories of the Guernsey parents putting their children on ships to England to keep them safe. I don’t want to imagine having to make that decision.
All in all, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a fun and fast read. Great characters, creative format and a good dose of World War II history make this book a must-read for historical fiction fans. I don’t think anyone could be disappointed with this story.
Completely enjoyable. Manipulatively sad and winsome, pokes at various hormone sacks in you until you give up and start weeping slightly. Injects sentimentality at well-researched moments.
This is an epistolary novel--that is, entirely written as exchanged letters between the somewhat over-plentiful cast of characters--so it's rather convenient that the characters have an adorable tendency to be extraordinarily expository.
The facile plot device here is that Guernsey (one of the UK's Channel Islands) was occupied during WWII (this happens to be true) by the Germans (also true), which just happens to have the side effect of isolating the island's inhabitants from whatever history was going down on the continent and in England. Sure. This is feasible (and again, true).
What a boon! A well-timed ignorance of the populace that gives the book's authors (there are two; more on this shortly) a very effective mechanism to insert explanatory paragraphs into those letters shooting back and forth over the channel: those enlightened folks in England actually have to tell Guernsey residents what went down.
This works, mostly. But I'm not willing to believe that a Guernsey resident in the 1940's would not know who Prince Albert is without having to have it explained to them (Queen Victoria's tragic prince consort). That doesn't fly.
Our heroine, Juliet, is one of those pre-packaged literary-independent-sparkling creatures that a modern reader couldn't help but root for, stepping afoul of sensible tradition time after time in adorable fashion. The Guernsey residents a lovable ragtag crew of farmers, shrews, and widows. There are tea cozies and cottages. In short, both endearing and unutterably twee (usually I don't use the term 'unutterably' because it's contradictory--I just DID utter it).
Though the ultimate outcome of the book is obvious from a mile away, there are some pops and blasts in the middle of the story that did make me catch my breath. Guernsey's captivating and mysterious idiosyncrasies are used to good effect as a foil to contrast with the mind-blasting violence of the war. Cue some horrifying scenes in German concentration camps and bombing raids in London. There's nothing new here, but it's still a bit of a shake-up.
For all my condescension, I enjoyed every moment of reading this book. And I have a dreadfully strong desire to visit Guernsey now (along with, I'm sure, fifty million other middle-aged women's book clubs--gak!).
I found this book relaxing to read and was quickly swept up into it, which is actually more than I can say for a lot of the stuff book clubs are reading these days. And because all of the letters were so short, it was really easy to read a little bit here and there, even if I didn't have a lot of time. I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a semi-light but still quality read.
I liked the epistolary novel format, and I enjoyed reading about the occupation of Guernsey in WW2. The only other thing I'd read about the Channel Islands during the war was in Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. But the characters wound me up - they were all a bit one-dimensional and predictable.
**spoilers coming, if you are the only person apart from me who hasn't read this one: **
I'm sorry but could Elizabeth have been any more perfect? It would have been enough to have her go to the concentration camp, without then two acts of heroism - taking the blame for someone else's stolen potato, then HELLO, stepping out of the line to attack the overseer for being vicious to someone else? I've read books by camp survivors, and just staying alive was enough of an act of heroism. I can believe that she take blame for the stolen potato, but I have not read of anyone being openly rebellious to a camp official. There were lots of things like this that bugged me. Juliet arrives, child falls in love with her, despite already having lots of caring people looking after her who are locals. Juliet decides to stay on island forever.
It just felt like they tried to put too much in - like the letters from Oscar Wilde (I liked that bit) almost getting stolen by the evil journalist's girlfriend ...
Anyway, cute, nice, and I liked it enough to keep going. And I liked Sidney, even though I'm not so sure that he'd have told Isola he was gay in 1946 when he'd known her 24 hours.