Thursday, September 17, 2009

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

When this book first came out last year, I felt I was seeing it in every store I went and even though the cover intrigued me initially to make me curious about reading it I put it off. I thought about asking people about it but I struggled to remember the title or synopsis correctly so I didn't ask around about it either. During this year, however, it was chosen for a book group that I'm in and since I enjoying going to talk about books I quickly put a copy on hold at the library so that I could read it and take part in the discussion.
My first attempt at reading it wasn't quite as successful as I had hoped it would be and I had a hard time focusing on each letter, since the book is an epistolary novel, I had to reread several of them in the beginning since it felt important to grasp what was being said in each letter in order to fully understand what lay ahead in the upcoming pages. I remember feeling a bit frustrated when I was only about 36 pages into it. A friend of mine was reading it at the same time and was really enjoying it so her encouragement kept me reading it. As I plunged ahead, I read as much as I could before the initial book group meeting. Since my book was on hold at the library and I had to return it I ended up borrowing it from my friend then finishing it, on my second attempt, some weeks later. I had to reread some pages all over again to remember and keep the characters sorted out in my mind. So, it takes a bit of memory and work at the beginning of reading this book but I found out that once you're engaged in it then it is well worth the effort. For me, it was hard to remember the relationship between each of the letter writing characters when I firgured it out and made a list to refer to, i.e., Sidney (publisher) and Juliet (author) and Susan (publicist) and Sophie (Sidney's sister and Juliet's best friend) etc.., then it really helped me out. Otherwise, I just kept forgetting who was who. Later, when Juliet started corresponding with the residents of Guernsey, I knew I would be totally lost if I did not keep track with a list of all of these characters. As soon as I did this, it was a smoother read until the end.
Basically, this book takes place in London and on the Guernsey Islands. It movingly reveals the story of the Guernsey Islands during and recently after WWII and how the war intitially changed the very lives of its inhabitants. Juliet Ashton, the main character, is a famous writer who learns about Guernsey and becomes drawn into the small island, at first by discovering about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society via letters from its residents and then later receiving more details of the horrors that the people on Guernsey suffered during the German occupation, as well as what they did to overcome their bitter situation while making significant efforts to keep human kindness and love intact.
I enjoyed all of these little efforts displayed by each character. I'll never forget Juliet's red dress, or the adoring Sidney, the kindness of Dawsey or the mysterious letters inherited by Isola from her Granny. I really fell in love with some of the characters and even the ones I didn't I could see the goodness in them. I really found out that even though the book seems to be only about Juliet at first in the end it is really about a unique group of people. There is just something about reading people's back and forth correspondence, the writings in one's diary, or dare I say, comments at the end of the blogs, to really get to know them . In this regard with the correspondence, the author was quite successful as I really got a good sense of what the island went through, a feel for this time period and what each person was all about. In the end, if money were no object, it did make me want to actually visit this tiny little historical island.
One last note, I really liked one of the underlying themes about books and reading - that it is and can be so much more to a person's life than a simple pastime or hobby. It made me love to read all over again!

288 pages, July 2008, My rating: 4 stars


hamilcar barca said...

hey, Julie, i'm reading this right now! i'm about 40 pages through it so far. i'll be able to write a really short review on it when i'm done. link to your review and say, "I agree".

hamilcar barca said...


Amanda said...

I've heard this has got a lot of literary references, which makes me happy. Everyone keeps telling me I need to read it.

Also, I just want to second Terry's sentiment - Happy 25th! I seem to recall someone telling you there was no way you could read 25 books in one year, and you've proved that person wrong! And it's only September!! :D Go Julie! Go Julie!

Julie said...

Hamilcar - Thanks so much! I think it's great you're reading this and I know that you'll have great insights into it. Can't wait! Also, nice to say that you agree. :)

Amanda - Yes, there were quite a few literary references in it. I can't wait to hear your take on this book when you read it.
I did it, I did it and I can't believe that I actually did read 25 books already! I did prove that person wrong :O with more reviews planned to write. I've always appreciated your encouragement too.

L said...

I liked this one too. There were a lot of characters but each was so distinguished and different as it went on it got easier to remember each one. The author did a good job of creating a separate voice for each. I laughed and I cried.
I love reading books about WWII that offer different points of view. I had no idea this island existed, and their German occupation, I believe at least was true. It would be a fascinating place to visit.

And Happy 25TH!!!

Julie said...

Lula - Thanks! :) Each character did have a refreshing distinction. I agree, it would be fascinating to visit Guernsey Islands someday.

Trixie said...

I've seen and heard a lot about this book too, but I didn't know what it is about. Sounds really interesting. Now looking forward to reading it in the future.
Congratulations on your 25th review!

Julie said...

Thank you, Trixie! When you are able to read it, I look forward to hearing what you think about it.
At our book group, we had a great discussion and the hostess had gone to great lengths to serve food from Guernsey recipes she found online. Lots of fun!

Rebecca Reid said...

I enjoyed this, but I was opposite of you: I really liked the literary-ness of the first 100 pages or so and was drawn in to the book talk. And then it got a bit dull once she went to Guernsey. I still enjoyed it and am glad I read it.

I admit it was hard to tell them apart. I wasn't crazy about the letter style because they all sounded the same.

Incidentally, I think the author copied 84, Charing Cross Road, which is a true set of letters between two different people. I read it after Guernsey, and its definitely the original inspiration.

Julie said...

Rebecca - Thanks for taking the time to read my review. I appreciate it. I enjoyed hearing what you thought of this book. I think the literary-ness is what kept me reading even through my confusion.
I hadn't heard or have read 84 Charing Cross Road and I think it seems intriguing about how that may have inspired this book. I so think it's quite sad that Mary Ann Shaffer has passed away so it is hard to really know where her inspiration came from unless her niece who finished the book knows. (?)
I agree with you on the way the letters were written as they just didn't have enough of their own voice, so to me as well, they sounded fairly similar to each other. Perhaps, this contributed to my obstacles in reading it.
I'm glad to have read it too.