Newest Review: ... know, I'm so obstinate. The story is told through the letters that Juliet sends and receives whilst she is researching Guernsey and the S... more
Member Name: MALU
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer
Advantages: good characters, good story, funny and tragic
The year is 1946, the 5-year-long German occupation of the island has ended. Guernsey was completely cut off from mainland England and the rest of the world, no radios, no newspapers, no outsiders with news reached the people on Guernsey. They knew as little about the goings-on in the world as the world knew about them.
Juliet has finally found a topic she wants to write on, i.e., what the German occupation did to Guernsey and how people coped. Her literary friends spread the word and letters to Juliet pour in. At last she decides to visit the island and her pen-friends in person.
The book is an epistolary novel meaning that it consists only of letters and the occasional telegram (Helene Hanff's novel '84 Charing Cross Road' from 1982 belonging to the same genre sends kind regards). We don't only get the letters the people from Guernsey write to Juliet, but also Juliet's letters to them and Juliet's letters to Sophie, her best friend, and Sidney, Sophie's brother, who's Juliet's publisher, letters from Sophie to Sidney and vice versa.
This is a clever trick as it allows the author to introduce many different points of view without it looking strained. The characters of the writers shine through their writing, the books they read and discuss reveal their thoughts, sometimes they gossip about each other which reveals something about the gossiper and the gossipee.
The characters Shaffer has thought of are realistic and likeable, so much so that readers worldwide have bemoaned the fact that the book comes to an end. 'I want it to go on forever', they say or 'I want to go to Guernsey and join a book club' (from the Afterword).
I've also taken to the fictitious characters. I have no problem believing that a simple farmer can be fascinated by the writings of Seneca, for example, even so much that he refuses to ever open another book. Everybody who's learnt to read can read, what niggles me, however, is the way these people express their thoughts in writing. Not everyone who's learnt to write can write well, and these people nearly all write well, too well. Only rarely does a grammatically incorrect form slip in, mirroring the way uneducated people talk. 'Them German soldiers was as hungry as we was.'
Of course, a good writer should be able to give each character their own voice, but if Shaffer had done this consistently, the narrative wouldn't run smoothly and the readers would perhaps stumble over odd expressions, dialect terms and incorrect grammatical constructions distracting them from the content proper. I don't know if Ms Shaffer couldn't write differently or if she didn't want to, anyways, I think it's better to read souped-up English as we do here than linguistically correct English, it's better for the greater good of the novel.
A piece of literature is of high quality if it works on more than one level, this is the reason why nearly all crime novels are not of high literary quality. There's usually only the level of suspense, no profound thoughts or double meanings hinder the flow.
Besides the discussion on literature The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society also offers a love story with two rather dissimilar contenders. It differs from the typical chick lit pattern as the woman and one of the man involved don't realise at all that a love story is going on, everyone else does, though. This love story gives the novel structure because it leads to an ending, without it the novel could indeed go on forever.
It's laudable that the German soldiers aren't described only as brutal beasts, one good German officer plays a pivotal rôle in the lives of the people we get to know through the book club. The description of what happens in a concentration camp an islander is sent to isn't easy to stomach but it's good that it is included in my opinion.
Despite the horrors connected with this disastrous period of time the overall tone of the novel is positive, at times even light and funny. Juliet who 'carries' the story is a witty woman, and some of the stories she hears from the islanders are humorous anecdotes, for example, how to raise and slaughter a pig without the Germans noticing it although all piglets are marked immediately after birth. One can't but grin about the people's inventiveness.
Sadly, the novel is a one-book writer's success, Mary Ann Shaffer was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1934, and died in 2008, she only ever worked on this book. The cover also mentions the name of her niece, Annie Barrows, who helped her to complete the final drafts.
All in all a recommendable read which satisfies different literary tastes. From what I've read it's a great favourite with book clubs.
Summary: Booklovers on Guernsey after WW2