Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Schaffer
Nutshell: World War Two is over, and for Juliet Ashton, sometime writer of a war humour column, so is the Muse of Comedy. Juliet is sick of making fun of war, and ready to write something completely new. As she tours England, two unexpected things happen. The first is that a rich, handsome man begins to court her. The second is that she recieves a letter from one Dawsey Adams, inhabitant of the Island of Guernsey in the English Channel, who owns a book that used to be hers. It’s collected writings of Charles Lamb, and he adores them and wonders if she might know of a place where he could acquire more?
Juliet, intrigued, has her favorite bookseller hunt down a volume which she sends with her reply, asking about his literary passions. He explains that he is a member of the Society given by the title of the book, which came about during the war in order to prevent their being arrested by Germans, and that only serves to fascinate her more. How could a literary society prevent arrest? Wherefore the Potato Peel Pie? And so she begins to correspond with the members of the Society, discovering the extraordinary story of one community’s occupation by Germans in WWII, and their reconstruction.
Readalikes: I have not read much WWII fiction since my girlhood. If you wish to delve deeper into the experiences of those caught in the Holocaust, The Hiding Place and Number the Stars are two excellemt choices. For those wanting more historical fiction in this style, Sorcery and Cecelia and sequals are also told through correspondence. The characters and narrative story are rather like Dorothy Sayers, without the mystery aspect.
Ramblings: I expected a very different book. When I heard the title, I set myself for a Jasper Fforde style literary farce. The books tone was lighthearted but sedate from the start, so I revised my expectations about three notches down from the crazy I was anticipating, and got a good third of the book done before I realized I was holding something much more profound.
I am not the least bit disappointed.
For one thing, I do not prefer the wild rumpus of the farce. It’s alright now and then, but it’s too hectic for everyday, in the same way that jello shots might be fun, but a glass of wine is best most evenings. For another, this is WELL done historical fiction. I’ve read a good number of old books and can usually spot (but forgive) the imitations. They will make allowances for modern grammar, or make subtle shifts in worldview to account for modern opinions. (When they’re not simply having the characters confront the attitudes of the times.) This did neither, partly because the late 1940s were much closer than my usual historicals, and partly because it did not need to. The author was not taking on antiquated ideas, but unearthing old stories. It felt exactly like finding a box in the attic of someone’s great-grandmother’s letters and piecing together snapshots from another experience. Truly, it was beautiful.
It was also well-steeped in literature, which made me feel not-well-read-enough. (It has that in common with Sayers too!) One of the characters is named Will Thisbee, an obvious combination of Will Shakespeare and Thisby from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I suspect that many of the other characters are similarly named, but I didn’t catch any of the references. Maybe someone could help me out?
So I said this book is more profound. It begins as a fascinating tale of relationships formed in unexpected ways, and it keeps that thread as it delves into the nature of the occupation of Guernsey during WWII and the way that unexpected relationships formed during that time. (I do not know how many of the details in this book are fictionalized.) And though it begins with a bit of hilarity, and that certainly crops up — as Juliet is the sort to attract absurd and hilarious situations — the humor is just the top layer of a very deep book that doesn’t attempt to gloss over the horrors of WWII and what even relatively safe people had to deal with during it. (Nor does it bludgeon you with the horrors. It’s very even-handed and honest about good and bad together.)
I said that line “A fascinating tale of relationships formed in unexpected ways” before I realized how true it was. There is the aquaintance Dawsey and Juliet form because he has a book she once owned. There is the romance blooming between Juliet and a millionaire American who is fascinated by her for no apparent reason. There are romances and friendships between German occupants and Guernsey occupieds, and spies, and enmities. There are people who connected in concentration camps and found their way to each other after the war, to heal together. And in the midst of it all there are normal village relationships, normal business relationships, and the acquaintances of an everyday life.