Is there anything better than being delightfully surprised by a book that you weren’t expecting to like?
I had never heard of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society when I picked up a paperback copy of the novel last spring, from the display table at my favorite used bookstore. The title nearly put me off – it sounds so silly, worse than The Friday Night Knitting Club (which I had also recently read, and about which I will not be posting.) Also, the book has two authors – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – which is often a red flag for clunkiness.
I read the “critical acclaim” blurbs on the covers and the first few pages, and they were very good. What clinched it, for me, was a front cover blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she said “Treat yourself to this book, please…” I had recently read Eat, Pray, Love by Gilbert, and since her own writing is superb, I figured she knew what she was talking about. After dithering for only a few minutes, I bought the book.
The entire story is told in the form of letters written from various characters to other characters. There are no editorial explanations, other than a notation at the top of each letter, stating whom the letter was from, and to. This tactic could easily have become gimmicky, or worse, it could have made the narrative sound choppy or confusing. None of these things happened, thanks to the beauty and strength of the writing.
The book, published in 2008, is set in 1946 – but it sounds timeless, not dated.
(It is also one of the very few “squeaky-clean” novels I will be recommending. Approved for all audiences.) It is, at heart, a love story, filled with witty people I wish I knew – by the end of the book, they don’t seem fictional.
Nutshell: the main character, Juliet, a writer who lives in England, becomes pen pals with a man who belongs to a reading group on the small island of Guernsey. He first writes to her because he has acquired a book that once belonged to her (her name and address are penciled inside) – it is a collection of essays by an author they both admire. Juliet, who is searching for a topic for her next book, begins corresponding with him and with several members of his reading group. Eventually, she visits the island for an extended period of time.
The book is light-hearted and fun – sort of like a literary beach-read. What I cannot get over, is how much technical skill the authors displayed. Imagine how tricky it would be to develop all sorts of diverse characters without using the editorializing of either a first-person or third-person narrator. When you create an entire story using fictional letters, you have to describe people and actions with extreme subtlety. The moment you start abusing the system, by trying to cram in extra description that you just really need the reader to know, it will blare out like a foghorn. There’s a reason more writers don’t try to use this format – it’s dang hard.
The poignant back-story of the book is explained in an Afterward. The main author, Mary Ann Shaffer, fell ill and died just before the book was published, so she never got to see the wide acclaim it received. This was her first book. Her niece, Annie Barrows, did the final rewrites on the book, when Mary Ann was too sick to finish. Whatever work the niece did, it fits in seamlessly.
I honestly can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like this book. I’m sure they exist, I just can’t come up with any, off the top of my head. The story, and the people in it, are simply that charming.
The death of Mary Ann Shaffer is our loss; I would have very much liked to read other work by her. Instead, we are left with this nearly perfect little novel. I guess that’s not a bad legacy to have.