01 March 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Thoughts and Reflections:
This book is a great read, undoubtedly. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Having picked it up on Friday evening, I was absolutely unable to put it down until I’d finished it on Monday morning (work may have suffered. Consider this a warning should you decide to read this book!). The book is written through letters (an epistolary novel), which is not always a form I can thoroughly appreciate, but found it quite enjoyable in this case. The voice of each character was certainly evident and separate from that of other characters, which can be quite a feat.
I was completely incensed by Markham Reynolds! The very idea that he demanded Juliet to give up her ambitions to be with him was maddening. I won’t tell you how it turned out, but to me, his character is pure poison! He was a good contrast to all the good and kind hearted residents of Guernsey.
There is one instance when a Guernsey resident expresses outrage at the elitism of the Society. This was a sad point, in my mind. To me, books are humble happiness, never elitist. I do have experiences of literary elitism, however, and can certainly understand this moment. I’d be interested to hear reflections on books and literary societies for others!
I do have some criticisms, however. My first is that the American-ness of the authors was evident in the writings, despite the topic being British. I lived in Britain last year (Scotland, mind) and wasn’t quite convinced that the characters were all the way British, especially in word choice. Mainly, when trying to reveal a simple, country nature to some of the character, they came to sound like they were from America’s Deep South. In this same line, I wasn’t completely convinced that the language used by the characters was precisely from 1946. My second criticism is the ending. About half way through the novel, I began to fear the predictability of the ending. It is certainly the most romantic ideal ending for which the reader could possibly have hoped. I am not so inclined to such sappy endings, but also didn’t especially enjoying seeing it coming for 150 pages. In my mind, this book was made for female readers who adore books. In part this is why I enjoyed the book. However, part of me also found it excessively idealistic in its romanticism. Regardless, I would certainly recommend this book to just about anyone. I have, in fact, recommended it to a colleague who is a WWII historian. I very much look forward to hearing her response!
Nonetheless, despite some criticisms, I read this book quickly and happily. It was just the unwinding I needed after a very tense week! I’d also be very interested to hear a male response to this book, as I wholly consider it to be intended for a female audience!

The Authors:
The book was written mostly by Mary Ann Shaffer. However, Mary began to fall ill part way through writing and called upon her niece and fellow authoress, Annie Barrows to help finish the novel. Mary, unfortunately, died in February 2008 and before the novel really gained popularity. Annie Barrows currently resides in Northern California. Further information on the authoresses is scarce, at least for the time being.

Point of Interest:
The Guernsey Literary Society operates their meetings quite differently from the average book clubs I have experienced. Usually, everyone reads the same book, then comes together to discuss it. In the Guernsey club, however, each member reads their own book. When they come together, each member speaks a bit about the book they are reading. I reckon this is due to necessity. I feel spoiled that my library carried multiple copies, or that I could simply buy my own in a bind, whereas in the Guernsey club, it was a simply impossibility for everyone to read the same book for the same meeting.

Brief Synopsis:
This is the tale of Juliet, a London-based authoress in 1946 in the aftermath of WWII. Juliet has experienced considerable success from a war-time series, but is in the midst of writers block, whilst trying, like the rest of Europe, to regain footing and life after the war. She comes into contact with Dawsey, an humble farmer from Guernsey Island, who has asked her to help him find a book by Charles Lamb. Juliet and Dawsey begin to regularly correspond and Juliet learns of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as well as the greater impact of the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Juliet comes into contact with many more residents of Guernsey as she writes an article for The Times on the benefits of reading. She eventually travels to Guernsey in order to further research Guernsey as the topic for her next novel.

Main Themes:
German Occupation: Much of this novel focuses on the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII. Juliet was aware of the occupation, but becomes increasingly aware of the greater impact of the occupation. Issues such as the decision of Guernsey parents to send their children away to England for safe keeping, German-local interactions, war prisoners, and labour camps are all discussed. Also, residents must come to grips with the fact that the British military did not defend the islands, nor come to their aid until the end of the war.

Community: The book club becomes a method for locals to cope with the difficulties. This group of people hardly knew each other, yet one character, Elizabeth, and the excuse of the book club brought them together and unified their small community. They were also met with scrutiny from other Guernsey residents for their “elitism” and also the mix-bag of members.

Selflessness: We never meet Elizabeth, but hear many tales of her in the novel. Each story we hear is another heroic tale of her standing up to injustice, of uniting people together, and of risking her life to help others, which eventually leads to her death.

Ambition: This was a minor theme in the novel, but one that struck home with me. Juliet, a young authoress, is courted by a charming and wealthy American publisher. However, rather than encouraging her, he presses her to give up her ambition, her idiotic ideas of going to Guernsey and writing of its residents, and be his trophy wife in London. Thankfully, she realises this and tosses him to the curb, choosing her life’s path for herself!

Things I Loved About This Book:
1)The humour in combination with the very serious issues of the Occupation. The book was overall light hearted and made me laugh outwardly, yet it also spoke on topics such as the sending away of children for safety and neighbours being sent away to German labour camps.

2)The banter between Juliet, Sydney and Sophie.

3)The idea that books can brighten the darkest of days and bring communities together.

4)The characters! I loved Isola! Part of me would like to be her… at least in my old and senile years.

1 comment:

julienne said...

Saw your comment on Goodreads and redirected myself here, A-dogg. :) Gwen sent this to me last fall and so I consumed it much like you did. But I share your slight disappointment with the slightly sugary ending, and the "all-wrapped-up" neatness of the plot.

No denying that it is a difficult book to put down, nevertheless. I stayed up until 4 in the morning finishing it. Against my will.