BY SEAN CLARK
Authors: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I’m going to call it GLAPPPS from here) is an epistolary novel occurring immediately post World War II. At its heart, it’s a subdued romance, though on the surface it’s a tale of community and friendship and bravery and belonging. Not really my kind of book. Still, I liked it.
Juliet wrote a column for a London newspaper during the war. When she hears of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society, she becomes intrigued by the name alone–as, I admit, I was with the title of this book. She writes letters to a number of the inhabitants of the small British island, and slowly begins to cultivate fondness for, then relationships with, many of them. Most especially the kind and quiet Dawsey Adams (who, I should note, reached out to Juliet and informed her of the society in the first place).
The society originated on the occupied Channel Island as an excuse to have dinner parties under the noses of the Germans. As the occupation stretched, and with it the lack of news from the mainland, the false literary pretense of the group became real, a connection to culture and community. Eventually the pigs they were eating in secret ran out, along with much of the rest of the island’s food. The society continued, with the dinners replaced with the best they could come up with: most creatively, potato peel pie.
This is a sound little love story. I took some gripe with it mainly because I didn’t really like Juliet that much. She is relatively clueless, and for an author, she’s terrible at reading and evaluating the people around her. My sense was that this was supposed to be a nod to the old romances by the likes of Austen and Brönte, where passion roiled under a surface that required things be muted for decorum’s sake. (I understand that is a gross generalization, but you get my drift.) Here that is not really the case. Yes, much of the story takes place during the German occupation and control of a British community, but Juliet’s story comes after. So her reactionary letters concerning her feelings for the different suitors in her life come across at times as naïve, sometimes to the point of stupid.
This occurs outside of her romantic interests too. Perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a transplant to Guernsey, who quickly became a central figure in the community, she even founded the society that so captured everyone. Despite giving birth to a German soldier’s child, she was sent to a concentration camp, not to return. For the meat of the book, the letters Juliet shares with the Guernseymen piece together Elizabeth’s story, and through her the story of the island during wartime. Even once Juliet begins supplanting Elizabeth’s life–she stays in her cottage, cares for her orphaned child, all the while sharing stories about her daily–Juliet can’t pin what her book should be structured around. Eventually, her editor figures it out for her, and Juliet’s reaction is effectively a facepalm.
My frustrations with Juliet aside, this is a pleasant read and a nice romance. This book practically screams bookclub (I didn’t check, but I bet Oprah’s picked it). There’s a lot of feel-goodery here, even with some of the darker themes and events it touches upon. But while it’s not exactly my type of book, I can’t fault it for that. Fans of Austen and her kind will find something to enjoy with GLAPPPS, especially if those who are in search of an unstrenuous beach read for August.
Similar Reads: The Book Thief (Zusak), The Lover (Duras)
[This review is of the unabridged audiobook edition]