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Monday, June 11, 2012

‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

From the BLURB:
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

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.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

The year is 1946, and Miss Juliet Ashton is touring England to promote her book ‘Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War’. Originally a serial that appeared in ‘Spectator’ to lift spirits by taking a humorous look at the war, the book is now selling splendidly and Juliet finds herself a legitimate authoress. The only problem is that she doesn’t have much of an idea for a second book. The war is over, but Juliet is struggling (with the rest of the nation) to forget the horrors. Her flat was bombed to bits in 1942, and Juliet finds herself displaced in a Chelsea rental. Ration cards are still in circulation, to begin helping all those displaced persons across Europe (and Juliet will admit; it sticks in her craw that some of those persons are German).

Waiting ever patiently for an idea to come to her is Juliet’s dear friend and publisher, Sidney Stark (of Stephens & Stark Ltd.) who also happens to be the elder brother of her very best friend, Mrs Sophie Strachan. Ideas are even less forthcoming when rival American publishing tycoon, Markham V. Reynolds Junior takes to courting Miss Ashton – on the basis that she is the only woman to have ever made him laugh.

And then a letter arrives . . .  a letter all the way from St. Martin’s Parish, Guernsey – a small island (population approx 42,000) in the English Channel, between Weymouth in England and St. Malo in France.

The letter is from one Mr. Dawsey Adams, who just so happens to be in possession of a book by Charles Lamb called ‘Selected Essays of Elia’, once owned by Juliet, and which luckily contained her old address in the jacket cover. Dawsey Adams has a favour to ask of Juliet – if she would kindly give him the name of a London bookshop who could find him more books by Charles Lamb, and perhaps a biography? You see, Mr Lamb’s essays helped Dawsey a lot during the German’s five-year occupation of Guernsey – and he credits the essayist, and his own ‘Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’, with keeping him sane during the war.

Never one to shy away from curiosity, Juliet replies with a Charles Lamb book for Dawsey, and burning questions about this Potato Peel Pie Society . . .  thus opening a Pandora’s box into the little channel island; its inhabitants, their stories, their bravery during the war and the books that they came to cherish.

Juliet starts receiving letters from all of the Guernsey Literary Society members. Amelia Maugery, whose stolen pig founded the Society. Eben Ramsey, who lost his daughter and son-in-law during the war, but who is now enjoying the return of his young grandson, Eli, after a five-year absence. Isola Pribby makes potions for the islanders, has a pet bird called Zenobia, and was haunted by ‘Wuthering Heights’. Juliet also receives cautionary letters from island busy-body and God-fearing woman, Adelaide Addison, who warns her against associating with such ragamuffins. During her letter-writing, Juliet also learns of Elizabeth McKenna . . . the Guernsey woman who thought up the literary society, and whose defiance of the German soldiers landed her in a concentration camp – she is still missing, but the islanders have hope that she will return – especially because her four-year-old daughter, Christina ‘Kit’ awaits her return.

‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ was the 2008 bestseller from Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Told entirely in letter-format, the book has been an unmitigated success since its release – and in 2013 it will be turned into a film, to be directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Kate Winslet.

Believe all the hype you read and hear about this book – it’s all entirely true. If anything, it’s understated. ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ has been on my radar for a few years now, and I’m ashamed to say I was only finally prompted into my reading when I heard that a movie was in the works. Regardless, this is one of those books that, no matter when or how you come to read it, you finish with the satisfactory and transcended feeling that you are better for having known these characters and their story. 

The book is entirely in letter format. Beginning with Juliet’s letter to her friend and publisher, Sidney Stark, lamenting her book tour that forces her to be outgoing and charming, and despairing at having no ideas for a second novel. When Dawsey Adams’s serendipitous letter arrives from Guernsey (courtesy of an old book Juliet donated, now in his possession, which contained her London address on the cover) he unknowingly triggers a chain of events that will lead Juliet to Guernsey and a story all their own. 

Through her correspondence with the various members of the town’s Literary (and Potato Peel Pie) Society, Juliet begins piecing together the story of Guernsey’s five long years under German occupation. The Channel Islands were among the first pieces of English soil to be conquered; much to Hitler’s delight (he wrongly thought it would be a hop, skip, and a jump to London from the Channel). The Channel Islands were left defenceless by the British navy, who needed resources closer to home. Luckily, some children and mothers were successfully shipped off the island before the Germans arrived, and were placed in English homes for the duration of the war. What started as a friendly-enough occupation (despite two previous days of bombing) soon turned into a hellish enterprise. The Germans confiscated radios and cut phone cables – the islands were, literally, cut off from the rest of the world for five years. Then the Germans bought in Todt workers (prisoner slaves from all over Europe) – who were worked to death in fortifying the town against attack than never came. The Germans took the islander’s food for their own, leaving them little provisions and towards the end of the war, starvation had set in. The price for stealing food or aiding Todt workers was imprisonment, concentration camp or death on the spot.

Through her correspondence, first with Dawsey then Amelia, Isola, Eben and eventually the majority of the islanders, Juliet learns that the founder of the Literary Society was one Elizabeth McKenna. Elizabeth hastily came up with the idea of a Literary Society one night when she and a number of its members were caught by German soldiers in town after curfew – she quickly scrambled a lie together about getting caught up in their reading – a lie that saved them from jail, or worse. They were made to register their club with the commandant, and what started as a ruse quickly progressed into saving grace for many of the Society’s members.

Juliet learns of countless acts of heroism Elizabeth McKenna performed; from turning herself into a nurse, to helping hide a Todt worker from the Germans. And it was this last act of kindness that saw her shipped off to a concentration camp, yet to return to the island and her daughter, Kit . . .  a daughter, Juliet comes to learn, whose father was a German doctor called Christian Hellman; one of the few well-liked officers on the island. And so Juliet comes to wait, with bated breath like the rest of the islanders, for Elizabeth’s return. And in the meantime, she travels to Guernsey herself, to meet these people she has come to care about, and call friend, and perhaps tell a story or two about. . .

I do have a tiny infant of an idea, much too frail and defenseless to risk describing, even to you.

This book is a marvel. I had a bipolar reading experience with this one – laughing one moment and crying the next. Juliet is a wonderful narrator; in her early thirties, she’s surprisingly relatable in her love life (between the swank American Mark Reynolds, and curiously shy Dawsey Adams) and hilarious in her private sufferings (which she shares with Sidney and Sophie – mostly about how scared she is to end up a cat lady spinster). But this is a book of many voices, and although Juliet is our primary narrator, with the majority of letters being to and from her, it’s the islanders who often steal the spotlight.

Isola Pribby is hilarious in her potion-stirring, head-bump-reading ways. Adelaide Addison calls her the island witch, but Isola is just a flamboyant, overly curious gem who goes through a revelation when she reads ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the first time. Amelia Maugery is a character you’ll wish could be your grandmother in real life – a straight-talking woman whose empathy and kindness knows no bounds. And Kit McKenna, Elizabeth’s four-year-old daughter, has a glare like Medusa’s and an enviably steely spine – one of the best child characters I have read.

Then there’s Dawsey Adams – a man close to Juliet in age, he used to be the town recluse (partly because of his terrible stutter) but since meeting Juliet he has come more and more out of his shell, much to the delight of the Literary Society. He’s a quiet but compelling man, whose presence commands any room he walks into, and who Juliet cannot help but fall for in the most delicious and heartfelt of romances.

This book is fascinating for the story of the Channel Islands occupation during WWII alone. But what I really loved was the many revelations and proclamations about books – their healing power, ability to bring people together and aid individuals through dark times.

That’s what I love about reading; one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.

I think Mary Ann Shaffer summarized the book best when she said in her afterword;

I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art – be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music – enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

Marvellous as this book is, equally interesting is its inception. Mary Ann Shaffer had the seed for the story planted in 198o, but she didn’t finish writing it until 2008. Sadly, by the time the first manuscript was complete and sold, Shaffer fell ill. Her health would not permit her to finish the editorial and rewriting process, and so she handed the reigns over to her niece, Annie Barrows (author of the children’s book series, ‘Ivy and Bean’) who finished the book for her. Mary Ann Shaffer died in February 2008.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ is now one of my favourite books. It is a story about people overcoming adversity together, and with the aid of characters and authors – in books that helped lift their spirits and take them out of the drudgery and travesty of war. This book will be passed on to my friends and family, for I firmly believe in Juliet Ashton’s prediction that “there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers,” – and I hope that such an instinct finds this book in your hands very soon indeed.



  1. Brilliant review. I read this book quite a while ago and just fell head over heels in love with it. I always recommend it to others, but I haven't experienced anyone else who loved it as much as I did. Thanks for the review!

    1. Jade @ Chasing Empty Pavements - My pleasure! I loved this book so much, I practically force-fed it to my mum and she loved it too. Now we're playing a game of "who would you cast in the movie!?" I've mentioned Stephen Moyer and Paul Bettany for Dawsey, she wants Patrick Warburton Markham V. Reynolds Junior.

  2. Great review! This book sounds interesting, I may have to pick it up. New follower :)

    Cierra @ Books Ahoy & Blogovation Design

    1. Books Ahoy - Hello! Always happy to have a new follower! definitely pick this book up, it's soooooo good. I want to spruik it on street-corners, I love it so much :)

  3. Its been a while since I read this but I did enjoy it - thank for sharing your thoughtful review

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd out

    1. Shelleyrae - Well, this book had been on my TBR for AGES (I am ashamed to say...) so glad I finally got around to reading it. Thanks hon :)

  4. That was an excellent review. It's been a few years since I read this but you evoked the novel in a spectacular manner.

  5. danielle, this book has been in my tbr for ages too. i dont own it, but have borrowed it from the library a few times, in book and audio format.

    next time, i seriously need to read it. gorgeous review <3

  6. I love this book, however I haven't finished it yet. Honestly, I didn't know anything about Guernsey and its role in the second world war, so it is very interesting for me. Until reading on the subway, I'm often close to crying, I'm very thouched by the story. I was surching for pictures about Guernsey, when I found this review. Thank you! Nóra (from Hungary)


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