Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I really like letters. This might make me sounds old-fashioned, but writing and receiving letters is one of life's little joys, as far as I'm concerned. They require time and care and thought, and then a trip to a post office or mailbox, and then the anticipation of a response – really, there is no question that they are rather romantic and it doesn't seem that strange to think that many a love story has bloomed by post. So, with all of that bias out of the way, saying that I'm never quite sure about an epistolary novel might sound strange. My big complaint, usually, is that all the letters (back and forth) tend to sound the same since the same person is writing them (the novel's author). In a novel with two authors, though, it's a whole other story (pun, intended). 

In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows seem to have split up the characters, which means that the letters do often read as responses to one another, and that the voices in them sound distinct.

On the surface, the story sounds like a simple one. Juliet is a writer in England. She's just finished a book about her experiences as a reporter during the Second World War, and she's living in London, which is still largely ruined from all the bombings. She's hunting around for a topic for her next book when she gets a letter (all this previous information is also gleaned from letter between Juliet and her publisher, Sidney Scott, and her best friend Sophie). The new letter is from a man named Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island Guernsey in the English Channel. He writes to Juliet because he has a book, his favourite book, that used to belong to her (her name is written in the front) and he wants to know if the author happened to write anything else.

Naturally, a correspondence starts up between the two of them – how could it not between book lovers. In the course of a few letters, Dawsey tells Juliet of the titular literary society and she is intrigued. This lets loose the history of Guernsey's war days, during which time they were occupied by the Nazis and absolutely destitute (which is true). After writing back and forth, Juliet thinks that this literary society might make a great subject for her next book, so she asks Dawsey to get the other members to write to her and letters start to fly back and forth between Juliet and the readers on Guernsey. As someone who loves books and letters, the very premise of people writing back and forth about books was quite wonderful. 

But, they write about more than just books and eventually, Juliet comes to feel that she has good friends on Guernsey. So, naturally, she travels to visit them. Of course, she just falls in love with the island and her new friends are just as lovely in person as they are on paper. Naturally, she wants to stay there forever and never return to London, which is what she eventually does. 

It's not a long book (I read it in a weekend), so I won't ruin the end. But I will say there's a little mystery involved, a lot of WWII details, a romance and a bizarre tie-in to Oscar Wilde. Really, just when you think you have the story figured out, there's a mid-plot spice-up. That's another reason to love an epistolary novel: non-sequiters and plot changes work really well, and tone set by who's sending letter to whom adds subtle meaning to the action being described.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society also has a great pace, which makes it perfect for an Autumn weekend. Reading in lots of little snippets makes the story fly along as you glean new character details and plot points in every letter. Also, because of the WWII context, what could have been an overly light story feels more grounded. The characters have real concerns and objects in their way, and the historical detail adds another dimension to the plot, especially since it's about a place many people don't know anything about. And that is exactly the kind of thing I like to read in the fall, when I'm running around the weather is changing – something that reminds me of summer, but takes me somewhere different by the end.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Dial Press Trade Paperback edition)

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