Part of a series of book reviews I wrote for WV independent bookstore Taylor Books.
Mary Ann Shaffer: The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
By: V.C. McCabe
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society is a delightful, intelligent, and often emotional novel written by Mary Ann Shaffer with help from her niece Annie Barrows (Shaffer died before the book’s completion and publication). The title does the story a disservice, as this is not some Jane Austen chick lit book club schmaltz – though Austen is one of the many authors referenced in the book. Instead, the plot involves the serendipitous correspondence between a London writer and various inhabitants of one of the Channel Islands recently freed from German occupation in the post-war 1940s.
The story is told entirely in the form of letters between author Juliet Ashton, her publishers and other acquaintances in London, and the residents of Guernsey Island. It all begins when a farmer on the island, Dawsey Adams, finds Juliet’s contact information in an used book by Charles Lamb. Adams initially writes to Juliet requesting more information on Lamb, but soon he and many of his neighbors share their personal stories with Ashton as she begins assembling a novel of her own about the island and its German invaders.
Like Ashton, I found myself being drawn to a character that we never really meet. Elizabeth McKenna was the founding member of the Guernsey Literary Society, which originally began merely as an alibi for a group of Islanders who missed the German enforced curfew one night. Soon the group made their fictional book club a reality, and even the most uneducated members found themselves pontificating over the classics.
At times I was reminded of 84 Charing Cross Road or Ella Minnow Pea, but the Guernsey story is so complex and its characters so original that comparisons didn’t last long. There is a bit of fluff in the middle involving Juliet’s short-lived romance with a London cad, but it’s worth trudging through for the second half of the novel. Amidst all of the humor and light-hearted anecdotes that make up the book are heart wrenching stories about the war and concentration camps. But despite a very sad revelation toward the end of the book, the finale itself is so joyous that I found myself cheering for these fictional people I had unwittingly become so invested in.