Reviewed by Wendy Smith
Sunday, August 3, 2008
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dial. 277 pp. $22
Though it deals with a dark period in history, this first novel is an essentially sunny work. It affirms the power of books to nourish people enduring hard times -- not so surprising, since Mary Ann Shaffer, who died earlier this year, had a long career as a librarian, bookseller and editor. Her niece Annie Barrows, a children's author, finished the manuscript after Shaffer fell ill; between them, they crafted a vivid epistolary novel whose characters spring to life in letters and telegrams exchanged over the course of nine months shortly after the end of World War II.
The story begins on January 8, 1946, with a note from Juliet Ashton to her publisher that capably sets the scene. Juliet's witty weekly columns about wartime life were recently collected in a bestselling book, but she's tired of being "a light-hearted journalist," she writes. "I do acknowledge that making readers laugh -- or at least chuckle -- during the war was no mean feat, but I don't want to do it anymore." Fortunately for Juliet, her popularity garners her an assignment from the Times Literary Supplement for a serious article about the "philosophical value of reading," and a letter from a farmer on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, gives her the hook for it.
Dawsey Adams found Juliet's name and address on the flyleaf of a copy of Lamb's Selected Essays of Elia, he explains. "Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers." Dawsey would like to purchase more books by Lamb, but the island's only bookshop is closed. Could she give him the address of a London bookshop?
Understandably intrigued, Juliet sends him a copy of Lamb's Selected Letters and a series of questions. The pig was contraband, Dawsey tells her, served for dinner instead of being turned over to the Germans, and several participants lingered so long over this illicit feast that they were caught out after curfew. Quick-witted Elizabeth McKenna hastily invented a heated meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society as the reason for their tardiness, and she was so charming that the German patrol officer bought it. But since his commandant wanted to attend meetings, they had to actually establish the society. Its name was amended after one member declared he wasn't going to any meetings unless there was food; under the occupation's straitened circumstances, Potato Peel Pie was the best they could come up with.
Yes, the premise is contrived: The authors don't even bother to suggest how Juliet's discarded book turned up in Guernsey, and the neat way its literary society fits into her Times assignment is highly convenient. Most readers won't mind because her request for more information unleashes a flood of correspondence from a delightful gallery of eccentrics: valet John Booker, whose discovery of Seneca "kept me from the direful life of a drunk"; Isola Pribby, who immerses herself in the Brontës when she isn't whipping up elixirs "to restore manly ardor"; fisherman Eben Ramsey, who loves Shakespeare; farmer Clovis Fossey, who dotes on the poetry of Wilfred Owen but detests Yeats ("What does he know about verse?").
Juliet is so enchanted by these simple folk who share her passion for books that she can spare little time for Mark Reynolds, the dashing American publisher who courts her in London. Off she goes to Guernsey, where she falls in love with 4-year-old Kit, the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth and a German soldier who was killed after leaving the island. Elizabeth, arrested and sent to prison in Europe, has not yet returned, so her friends are collectively raising Kit. It's soon clear that Juliet wants to take responsibility for the little girl -- and that Kit isn't the only local the writer has fallen for.
Despite a few nasty characters, some grim descriptions of life under German occupation and the brutal death of a central figure, this is at heart a love story. It's not so much the predictable blossoming of Juliet's romance that moves us, however. It's Clovis getting a kiss from the widow he's courting by quoting Wordsworth: "Lookie there, Nancy. The gentleness of Heaven broods o'er the sea." It's Isola waxing indignant about Charlotte, Emily and Anne forever having to clean up after dissolute brother Branwell. It's Juliet finding her book topic among these people who have suffered but discovered the sustaining qualities of literature. You could be skeptical about the novel's improbabilities and its sanitized portrait of book clubs (doesn't anyone read trashy thrillers?), but you'd be missing the point. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a sweet, sentimental paean to books and those who love them. ·
Wendy Smith writes about literature, music and the performing arts for the American Scholar.