Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical, Second World War
Publisher: Dial Press / Bloomsbury
Publication Date: First published in 2008
Hardcover/Paperback: 274 pages
January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Borrowed from a friend
Why did I read this book: A friend of mine, knowing I love epistolary novels and stories in a Second World War setting, put this book in my hands after she read it and loved it. It was sitting on my nightstand when Elizabeth Wein, author of the fabulous Code Name Verity mentioned it as one of her influences and that was what made me finally read it.
In a recent article, Elizabeth Wein, the author of Code Name Verity (right now, my favourite read of 2012) listed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as one of her literary influences. Coincidentally, I had a copy of the book sitting on my nightstand, lent to me by a colleague whose love for books equals (if not surpasses) my own and who had raved about it. Based on the strength of these two recommendations, I read the book and ended up loving it with a passion. It reminded me of some of my favourite books: Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (for its fascinating and selfless characters) and Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (for its narrative format and main character’s voice).
It’s 1946 and author Julie Asthon doesn’t know what to write next. Her Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War column in the Spectator was very popular during the War but now she wants to put it behind her and work on something new. That’s when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands), a pig farmer who acquired a book by Charles Lamb that had once belonged to Juliet (it has her name on it) and whose love for the book prompted him to contact her to ask for further recommendations of other works by Charles Lamb. They begin a correspondence and Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the name itself is enough to make Juliet extremely curious – what in the world is a Potato Peel Pie? – and when she learns that the society came about because of a roast pig party and the need to keep it a secret in the German-occupied island, she decides she needs to hear more about it.
Juliet then starts to research everything she can about Guernsey under the German Occupation: Guernsey children were evacuated to England just as the island was invaded by a huge contingent of Germans and the island was completely isolated from the mainland and some of its inhabitants were sent away to concentration camps. In fact, a concentration camp was built on the island itself (the only ever on British soil) to host slave labourers. But those are merely hard-boiled facts. It is not until Juliet starts receiving letters from other members of the Literary Society that she is able to see a human portrait of the island and its inhabitants under German Occupation.
The book is written exclusively in letter format (oh, epistolary novels, you are my kryptonite) and it follows Juliet’s correspondence with not only her new friends in Guernsey but also with her editor (and friend) Sidney and others friends. The core of the story belongs perhaps to two people: Juliet and Elizabeth McKenna. Juliet’s growing love for Guernsey, its people and its stories as well as her focus on her own growth as a person and as a writer is one of the main threads. But as the letters keep coming, it is easy to see the importance of Elizabeth for this story: she is the one who in the spur of the moment, created the Society. Her actions are extremely brave and heroic and although we never hear directly from her (the reason, too spoilery to mention here) but her life touched the lives of all the members of the Society. I can’t express how much I loved that a book that refers to events during Second World War has a female character as the most heroic, courageous, selfless character of them all. I can’t count the many stories have I read (or watched) that featured male heroes doing tremendous acts of courage and being hailed for them – so I will take this story and embrace it, thank you very much.
That said, even though the core of the story might be Juliet and Elizabeth’s lives, its essence is about much more than just the one person. It celebrates life, love, endurance in the face of adversity and above all the love for reading and writing. Each member recounts how reading and attending the meetings of the society helped them get through the hard times and I loved how each person approached reading in different ways (there is one guy who read only one book throughout and managed to get new things out of it every time).
This is without a doubt a very uplifting, delightful story with a lot of light and funny moments and quirky characters. But it never denies or hides the horrors of the Second World War either. It depicts the German occupation with a degree of shared difficulties that I truly valued. There are people going hungry on both sides. There are vicious, coward, stupid, good, brave, well-natured people on both sides. It doesn’t shy away from the truths about death, torture and survival. One of the most poignant moments comes from concentration camp survivors who find it hard to share their stories with those that did not experience it because how can they possibly understand the horror? It is a very human, nuanced story and I appreciated it all the more for it.
As I was thinking about how to review the book, I thought about this recent video by Ron Charles in which he makes fun of stereotypical, formulaic words and phrases reviewers use in their reviews. But do you know…sometimes, these things ARE true and they WORK. So here it goes:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at once delightfully funny AND sadly poignant, uncompromisingly romantic and ultimately unforgettable: a tour de force!
That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you on to a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfect
Reading Next: Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer
Buy the Book:
Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, google, kobo & sony
ChachicFebruary 20, 2012 at 12:40 am
This book has been in my wishlist for a while, I’ve heard that it’s something that every book lover will appreciate. I plan to read it soon for the same reason you did: it’s one of EWein’s inspirations for Code Name Verity (also still my favorite book in 2012 so far). Plus, you gave it a 9!
CelineFebruary 20, 2012 at 12:52 am
*Squees and claps hands in delight* I LOVE when folks love this book, because I love this book so much. I read it straight after the gruelling horror of The Road and it was like standing on a cliff and letting the sea breeze wash freshness into my scorched brain.
MargFebruary 20, 2012 at 2:47 am
I was a bit nervous as I started reading this review because this was one of my favourite reads the year that I read it! Such a good read! I guess I needn’t have worried!
I was excited recently to hear that Kate Winslet has signed for the movie version! Seems like good casting to me!
NymethFebruary 20, 2012 at 3:00 am
Daddy Long Legs! I’ve had this on my TBR pile for years, sounds like it’s about time I read it.
JodieFebruary 20, 2012 at 4:15 am
Probably lots of people are going to recommend this to you now, but I think you’d enjoy 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff – a real life exchange of letters between a bookseller and book lover during the war. And then maybe that will lead you to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by the same author, which I liked almost more than 84. It isn’t epistolary, instead it’s Hanff’s short memoir about a much anticipated trip to London, but it’s lovely seeing someon approach the well worn tourist experience with such newness and enthusiasm.
e weinFebruary 20, 2012 at 4:56 am
I actually think 84 Charing Cross Road is a better book than Guernsey, and while I was reading I just kept thinking HOW MUCH Guernsey owes to 84. But it’s been a long, long time since I read it, so I don’t know how it’ll hold up.
So, Ana, YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN ABOUT ELIZABETH MCKENNA??? She made me want to make up a coward.
(I know. epic fail.)
Also, this is the book that put Ravensbrück back on my radar screen after 35 years, which is where I am currently doing terrible things to a new set of characters.
AnaFebruary 20, 2012 at 5:16 am
So, obviously I need to read 84 Charing Cross Road. I think I watched the movie years and years ago and from what i can remember, i wasn’t super impressed. But i was a different person then, so there is that.
MarieCFebruary 20, 2012 at 6:50 am
Great review! I second the ’84 Charing Cross Road’ and ‘ Duchess of Bloomsbury’ recommendation.
EmilyFebruary 20, 2012 at 7:51 am
This is the second glowing review of this book I’ve read today. Maybe it’s time I read the book already!
Laurie LFebruary 20, 2012 at 9:57 am
My book club (like MANY others) read Guernsey a couple years ago. My sister and I were against it since we typically hate books with too-cutesy type titles; all the creativity often goes into the name! But this one was much loved by both of us and touched our too-cynical hearts. Lesson learned, don’t judge a book by it’s (title) cover.
LindaFebruary 20, 2012 at 10:30 am
I absolutely loved, loved, loved this book! 😀
KateFebruary 20, 2012 at 11:42 am
Ooo, I loved this book! So glad you enjoyed it!
willafulFebruary 20, 2012 at 11:59 am
I actually found the phrases borrowed from Dear Enemy (the sequel to Daddy Long Legs) a bit much; I had reread it right before so the language similarities were really glaring.
AnaFebruary 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm
@Willaful: sorry, do you mean to say that there are passages in Guernsey that have been lifted from Dear Enemy? I have yet to read that book so I don’t know if I get your meaning correctly? Are they merely “language similarities” or whole phrases copied? The author does acknowledge that Daddy Long Legs was a source of inspiration and I am ok with “inspiration” and “similarities” but “phrases borrowed” is a different matter altogether.
willafulFebruary 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm
I don’t think whole passages lifted, more like turns of phrase and quotations. As if the primary narrators of both books had read and been inspired by the exact same literature. It could easily have been completely unconscious. I quote/paraphrase from Webster all the time, myself.
MeghanFebruary 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm
I loved this book, it was my favourite the year that I read it, and I’m so glad you found it that delightful! I agree it was the perfect mixture for me of lightness and actual serious aspects of the war – I kind of want to read it again as I’m writing this.
JohnFebruary 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm
I’m quite glad you liked this book, Ana, as I could barely finish it. All of the narrative voices ran together for me, and nothing felt complete. Literary fiction tends to polarize like that, though, and I’m glad it hit all of your readerly buttons in the appropriate manner. 🙂
AlexFebruary 20, 2012 at 7:42 pm
I just finished re-reading this myself for the severalth time (just finished Code Name: Verity as per your suggestion and OH MY IT WAS SO GOOD, but I really needed something to cleanse my tear-stained palate), and it was like catching up with some old friends.
I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Ebony McKennaFebruary 20, 2012 at 9:26 pm
I keep hearing about this book as well. Must get my hands on it.
Also, for more daring and brave exploits by women during WWII, check out the film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’ starring Virginia McKenna (hey, there’s that name again!) or anything to do with Aussie spy Nancy Wake.
Love Ebs (no relation, lol)
amythompsonFebruary 21, 2012 at 6:18 am
This book was our book club selection. Of the six of us, three really liked the book. The other three of us liked the book until about 2/3’s through when it took a turn from history to romance. At that point, we found it predictable and too light. We think the authors would have done better to have left the narrator’s love life out of the book. We would put it into the category of “light read” or “beach reading.”
ChristineFebruary 23, 2012 at 7:20 am
Wasn’t this book just wonderful? One of my very favorites.
capillyaFebruary 23, 2012 at 8:48 pm
I’ve been wanting to read this one! I haven’t read many novels that are written in letter format, but after you said on Twitter that Code Name Verity was amazing and you’ve written that THAT author was influenced by THIS book and you loved THIS book well HOT DANG.
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society | One More PageAugust 30, 2012 at 10:26 am
[…] reviews: Angieville Book Harbinger The Book Smugglers Tweet Pin It This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged 2012, 4 stars, Annie […]
signs | Live the QuestionsNovember 16, 2012 at 11:01 am
[…] “Have you ever noticed that when your mind is awakened or drawn to someone new, that person’s name suddenly pops up everywhere you go? My friend Sophie calls it coincidence, and Mr. Simpless, my parson friend, calls it Grace. He thinks that if one cares deeply about someone or something new one throws a kind of energy out into the world, and ‘fruitfulness’ is drawn in.” -from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society […]
Smugglivus Presents: Ana & Thea’s Most Excellent Books of 2012 | The Book SmugglersDecember 31, 2012 at 9:39 am
[…] The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell 2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows 3. Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells 4. The Freedom Maze […]
highschoolstudentJanuary 13, 2013 at 8:49 pm
I had to read this for a novel review in school and i’m so glad i did! now i’m trying to convience my sister to read it. this is such a great book! Definately on my favorites list!:D
Revival | ritewhileucanMarch 25, 2013 at 10:26 pm
[…] we are talking about books where the letters themselves become a character, I am about to begin this one shown to the left. How can I not with a title like that. I mean I just need to […]
Rezension - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Books and a Cuppa TeaDecember 10, 2017 at 12:59 pm
[…] The Book Smugglers (Damn near perfect; „The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at once delightfully funny AND sadly poignant, uncompromisingly romantic and ultimately unforgettable“) […]
2017: #14 – The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows) – Confessions of a BibliophileApril 11, 2018 at 8:39 pm
[…] “This is without a doubt a very uplifting, delightful story with a lot of light and funny moments and quirky characters. But it never denies or hides the horrors of the Second World War either.” – The Book Smugglers […]
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