Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
by Hasan Zillur Rahim
You know you have read an unforgettable book when you sigh at its completion, relive the dialogues and the wild and vivid characters in it, and hope desperately that the story will somehow continue.
Such was my reaction to Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Comprising only letters between the heroine Miss Juliet Dryhurst Ashton, her friends in England, and members of an improbable literary circle in the Channel Island of Guernsey near the French coast, the story seemed so real that I had to repeatedly remind myself it was a work of fiction.
Juliet is a headstrong girl who speaks her mind. Raised by an uncle after her parents are killed in a car accident, Juliet runs away from home, is “captured” and brought back, and finally sent away to an English boarding school.
As she matures, she discovers that books, and people associated with books, are her best friends. She writes a column for a newspaper during World War II, bringing humor to a grim subject, and attracts a huge number of fans. The columns are published as a book and Izzie Bickerstaff Goes to War becomes a bestseller. She achieves a measure of financial freedom, a writer’s dream. She writes funny and opinionated letters to her friends. She is content.
But maybe not. On 12th January, 1946, out of the blue, she receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams of St. Martin’s, Guernsey. Somehow, a book that belonged to Juliet – Selected Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb – has found its way to him.
“Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation,” wrote Adams, and the ever-curious Juliet is hooked. “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers,” responded Juliet.
Meanwhile, a pushy and wealthy American begins pursuing Juliet with a single-mindedness that leaves our heroine out of breath. He showers her with expensive gifts and treats her to the best food in town, a luxury in war-ravaged London. She isn’t sure if she loves him or not but defends his loud ways to her friends.
But gradually the utterly guileless and lovable members of Guernsey’s literary society take her heart over. She makes up her mind to travel to the island against the aggressive pleadings of her American suitor.
And then one day, she does.
I will not spoil your reading pleasure by hinting at what happens next, other than to say only this: Juliet discovers what love is among people for whom every day is a gift, having lived through a brutal occupation. It is as poignant, haunting, witty and uplifting a story as you will ever read.
How this book got written in the first place is a story by itself. In 1976, Mary Ann Shaffer, (born in West Virginia in 1934), visited the island of Guernsey and learned of its wartime experiences during the German Occupation. Twenty years later, she began to write The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. “All I wanted,” she said, “was to write a book that someone would like enough to publish.” Considering what followed, this has got to be one of the most striking understatements of our time.
Before publication, however, the editor requested some changes to the manuscript that required substantial rewriting. By then, in the summer of 2006, Mary Ann’s health had begun to fail. The responsibility fell to the other writer in the family, her niece Annie Barrows. Having grown up in the caring guidance and the story-telling gifts of her aunt, Annie gave her heart to the task, reproducing her “aunt’s voice, her characters, the rhythm of her plot,” even though she thought it would be impossible to do.
Mary Ann passed away in February of 2008. Shortly after her death, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was published. It became an international bestseller and put Guernsey firmly on the literary map of the world.
I began this short review by writing that I longed for the story to continue after I had finished reading the book. I now know that the story indeed continues. After all, thousands of reviews have already been written on its publication, yet more readers discover this gem everyday and feel the need to share their joy with others. That’s how the story of Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society lives on, in the heart of its ever-widening circle of grateful readers.