Writer: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publishing House: The Dial Press
Date of Publication: July 29th 2008
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Real dyed-in-the-wool readers can’t lie. Our faces always give us away. A raised brow or a curled lip means that it’s a poor excuse for a book, and the clever customers ask for recommendation instead, whereupon we frog-march them over to a particular volume and command them to read it.’’
Following an exciting April, I chose to start May with a focus on more contemporary, approachable reads that are simple but rich in themes focusing on the relationships within a family, within the members of small communities. One of these choices was a a book with the striking title The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Now, this work and yours truly have been through a stormy relationship. Ever since it came out, I’ve included it in my list only to dismiss it again and again. It just didn’t look like something I’d choose to read. However, I recently watched a documentary about the Channel Islands and I took it as a sign. And I am very happy to tell you that it is a delightful, meaningful novel.
Even though I’m not an admirer of novels written in the epistolary form, this is the kind of book that benefits from the style. It protects the reader from awkward dialogue and repetition. So. The story in a nutshell. Juliet is a rather successful writer who desires to finally write something that will be fulfilling to her aspirations. A letter of chance by Dawsey, a resident of Guernsey, brings the literary society with the astonishing name and the special background to her attention and what was meant to be a simple research becomes a journey of self-discovery.
I love the way the setting and the era come alive through the pages of this book. We are in 1946 and the island is trying to recover from the consequences of the German occupation. Juliet is going through a similar situation. She fights against dark memories, against prejudices and discriminations and bossy men who think she is incapable of producing a serious work just because she is a woman.The islanders want to be taken seriously. They’re not there to be laughed at or to be pitied. So, Juliet and Guernsey have much in common. Their thoughts and feelings are vividly shown and the reader has the chance to feel a part of both stories.
‘’The bright day is done and we are for the dark’’
Anthony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare
I appreciated the way Shaffer chose to focus on human relationships. People so different and yet so similar, brought together by the primal need to survive and the unique love for reading. A society that starts as an excuse to fool the Kommandantur becomes a haven, a shelter for the islanders who derive strength from heroes and heroines of tales. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, The Bronte sisters, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Bell siblings and, naturally, the One, the Greatest of the greats. William Shakespeare. The process of how people who had little to no association with books become dedicated readers was a joy to witness. And the fights, the antagonist, the passions that are inevitable in a small community where tensions have amounted for too long are always exciting…
I didn’t believe that in an epistolary novel there would be space enough for the characters to develop but I was wrong. We have the sympathetic ones and those who suffocate the others because of their beliefs and their ego. And, of course, we have Juliet who is such a fascinating heroine, full of life and endless determination. I loved her from the very first letter. So, if character development is one of your concerns regarding this novel, fear not. You will come to know quite a few exciting people, you will love them while others will give you some trouble. Just as in real life.
I didn’t come to think of this novel as a ‘’feel-good’’ story. What is this term, anyway? For me, there aren’t ‘’feel good’’ or ‘’feel bad’’ stories. There are well-written stories and badly written ones and many times, the most poignant tales are the ones that spring from togetherness and coincidences. They are told in a simple manner, in beautiful, quirky and sometimes sad prose. What could be more memorable than that? No pseudo-philosophical gimmicks or cheap sentimentalism but reality.
…plus there’s a plethora of references to Wuthering Heights and yes, I’m completely biased..
‘’I didn’t like Wuthering Heights at first, but the minute that spectre Cathy scratched her bony fingers on the windowpane- I was grasped by the throat and not let go. With that Emily I could hear Heathcliff’s pitiful cries upon the moors.’’
For more information on the little heaven that is Guernsey, please visit: https://www.britannica.com/place/Guernsey-island-and-bailiwick-Channel-Islands-English-Channel and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqtJ-Q84wi0 )