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For Your Reading Pleasure: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Value of a Good Letter
Prior to the age of email and the internet, journals and diaries and letters were the means for average people to communicate with each other over time and/or distance. Not quick, ill-conceived digital missives, these physical records provide a glimpse into the soul of the writer, the means for the reader to separate the wheat of a spirit from the chaff of the writer's body.
Many famous books have been written in an epistolary style - a series of letters and/or journals that form the building blocks of plot, motivation, and action: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Bridget Jones' Diary, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Uncommon Valour to name a few (for a more complete list and explanation of the form, click here).
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is a beautiful example of epistolary style where the voice and character of each of more-than-a-dozen separate letter writers sing from every page.
What It's About
In 1946, Britain has just come through a devastating war. Much of London is in rubble. Food and other essentials are in short supply. To help its population cope, local newspapers often print sunny editorials to boost morale.
As a writer of such fluff, Juliet Ashton is tired of it. She herself has suffered (her apartment and belongings destroyed in one of the bombings), is unsure of her current romantic relationship, and wants to produce more meaningful work. In the midst of trying to sort out her life, Juliet begins a fortuitous correspondence with a farmer from the isle of Guernsey -- one of the British-owned islands in the English Channel occupied by the Nazis for several years during the war.
As the frequency and depth of the letters between Juliet and the farmer Dawson increase, other voices are added to the island's war history as Dawson encourages his fellow islanders to write their stories for Juliet. What emerges is a tale of strength and humor mustered by the people of Guernsey in the face of brutality and starvation during the Nazi occupation.
What Makes It A Good Story
The voices. The voices that sing from each letter of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society make the novel delightful. Each voice is unique (and uniquely British), their stories revealing and moving. Juliet is inspired to learn more about her fellow correspondents -- and the reader is inspired as well by their humor and honesty.
Even when Juliet temporarily moves to the island to meet the people whose letters have enthralled her, several of the islanders continue to write, finding it easier to write of a tragedy than to speak of it. Here are a people who have experienced great deprivation and have survived with their wits and their wit intact.
What Makes It A 5-Star Read
Having read a few novels of the epistolary variety, I often find them dry and fragmented. Not so The Guernsey Litarary and Potato Peel Pie Society, where Ms. Barrows and Ms. Shaffer weave the voices of each character into a stunning song.
The book has been criticized (by The Rocky Mountain News) as treating a serious subject with a lighthearted tone and characterization. However, I found this same tone crucial to understanding how people endure in hard times and cope with great suffering. The Guernsey islanders affirm and nourish themselves and each other with every letter.
Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: Dial Press (May 5, 2009)
Books by Annie Barrows
Ms. Barrows' writing partner on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer, passed away in February of 2008 - more than a year before the novel was published. On her own, Ms. Barrow has written the other novels listed here.