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Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
Random House/Dial, 2008. 290 pp. $17

Early 1946, Juliet Ashton, a British journalist and author of lighthearted essays, tires of her book tour and finds little inspiration in London, where (male) gossip columnists and pundits resent her success. She’s also looking for Mr. Right and, at age thirty-two, despairs of finding him — or even knowing who he’d be, if she tripped over him in broad daylight.

Intrigue comes via letter: A man on the island of Guernsey has acquired a book, second-hand, that once belonged to Juliet, who left her name and address inside the front cover. Since the Germans occupied the island during the recent war, no bookshops exist there any longer; and since he likes the book, selected essays by Charles Lamb, could Miss Ashton please give him the name of a London bookshop that could sell him more? And, by the way, she might like to know that, partly because of her old book, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into existence.

Girls evacuated from the Channel Islands in 1940 to Marple, Cheshire, try on clothes and shoes donated by America (courtesy Ministry of Information and Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Naturally, this piques Juliet’s interest, so she writes back, sparking an avid correspondence between the several members of the literary society and herself. Meanwhile, Juliet writes and receives other letters — from the publisher (also a friend), his sister (another friend), an obnoxious American who’s courting her, and other Guernsey residents who don’t belong to the literary society but have opinions about it, and the participants, they must share. Many of these acquaintanceships cross. To no surprise, Juliet comes to believe — hope — that her next book will revolve around the German occupation of the island.

I usually avoid epistolary novels, but this one manages to work, chiefly because the milk of human kindness runs like a river through its pages, and I enjoy the portraits of the island eccentrics. They have names like Isola and Dawsey, and there’s a fellow with a more commonplace moniker but singular taste — he’s read only one book in his life, by Marcus Aurelius, and his friends show great patience every time the society meets, when he lectures them about it.

Humor peppers the letters, as with Juliet’s publisher’s remark about her American suitor: “He’s all charm and oil, and he gets what he wants. It’s one of his few principles.” Or Juliet’s observation that, because Charles Lamb taught Leigh Hunt’s youngest daughter how to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards, “You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.”

You may have concluded by now that the authors have striven for an Austenesque touch, and you’d be right. (Austen’s books also make a cameo appearance.) As a series of vignettes about good-hearted characters, Guernsey succeeds, and though at times treacle threatens, the narrative mostly avoids that pitfall. If you’re looking for an edge, you won’t find it here, but there’s longing and pain to leaven the story.

Some epistolary novels suffer from contrivance, particularly the looseness with which the entries logically connect, but that doesn’t bother me here. If you read Guernsey, don’t expect high stakes or a gripping storyline; the significant questions are too mundane, as in, will Juliet find a writing subject for her book and, in the bargain, true love?

Nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking light entertainment, purely. Guernsey doesn’t take itself too seriously, and therein lies its charm. Perhaps because letters say only so much — or these letters do—I don’t find Juliet a full, memorable character, so her concerns don’t compel me. But they don’t have to; characters like Isola, who makes herbal potions that everyone politely avoids, dabbles in phrenology, and fashions herself a would-be Miss Marple, carry the load, such as it is. Unfortunately, the American suitor is a caricature of the rich, narcissistic male; his opposite, a central figure of island life deported by the Germans for wartime acts of resistance, reads more like an ideal than a real person. The minor characters, consequently, steal the show.

For the most part, Guernsey capably straddles that perilous territory between humor and hideousness, offering a glimpse of the Occupation, in seemingly different version from its Continental counterparts. Maybe the authors airbrush a few things, but in the main, I believe their account. I do wish they hadn’t introduced a French refugee incarcerated at Ravensbrück, who seems to need only a few months on the island, among new friends, to become whole enough to cope. Sure.

But these are quibbles. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society makes fun reading, a short, not-too-sweet tale of warmth and humor.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.