Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Published by The Dial Press, 2008, 274 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the novel

When I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program, I had a few misgivings about starting it. For one thing, it has such a cutesy title. And it’s an epistolary novel which made me dubious right away. Novels written in the form of letters are some of the hardest to pull off successfully – I know because I’ve tried it myself, with absolutely ghastly results.

But I needn’t have worried. This is a wonderful little book. Some other reviewers have called it “perfect.” I’m not sure I’d go that far – but if it’s not perfect, it’s a very near miss.

With just a few exceptions, the letters that tell the story are written by or to Miss Juliet Ashton, a young writer living in London, right after World War II. It’s 1946 and England is struggling with the dreadful aftermath of the war – rationing is still in effect and the horror of the war is still fresh in everyone’s memories.

Juliet is floundering a bit, looking for a subject for her next book and not having much luck. And then one day she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a farmer living on the Channel Island of Guernsey. He has acquired a book that once belonged to Juliet – her name and address were written inside the front cover. The book is the Selected Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb, and Mr. Adams has fallen in love with the book and its author. He asks Juliet if she could send him the name and address of a bookstore in London where he can order more of Lamb’s books by mail. He also makes brief mention of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which he says came into being because of a roast pig the Islanders were trying to keep secret from the German soldiers who occupied the island during the war.

Her curiosity piqued, Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and their correspondence begins. Gradually, other members of the Island literary group join in and Juliet gets to know them all through their tales of the books and authors they’ve discovered. She learns about their daily lives in Guernsey, and also hears about the hardships and trauma they experienced during the war which brought the German army to their island. Juliet and the Islanders become more and more caught up in each other’s lives, until they eventually invite her to visit them, and she quickly accepts the invitation. And her visit has a powerful, life-changing effect on both Juliet and her new friends.

This is one of those rare books that will have you laughing and crying at the same time. It’s witty and warm and moving, with a few surprise twists thrown in along the way – a love story, and a celebration of literature and books and the people who read and write them. And it even has a description of the Potato Peel Pie of the title!

Oh, and Oscar Wilde makes an appearance, as well.

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