The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer is as utterly charming as its quirky, rather wordy, title suggests.
When the film adaptation came out last year, I managed to resist the temptation to watch it so I could read the book first. Without even reading the blurb, I packed it in my suitcase for Sicily but on opening it, I was surprised to discover that it is an epistolary novel, and for some reason, that put me off. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right head space as I hardly read anything that holiday, but I assumed that a book written in letters would lack atmospheric description. However, on giving it another go a few weeks ago, I was very much proven wrong! I was initially concerned about the multiple characters being introduced from the outset because I’m easily confused by too many names but after the first five letters or so, I was fully immersed in Juliet’s world.
Set in 1946 in the year after the end of the Second World War, Juliet Ashton is looking for a topic for her next novel when a letter arrives from a man she’s never met. Living on Guernsey, Dawsey Adams came across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb and gets in touch to tell her how much he enjoyed reading it. His letter sparks a correspondence which draws Juliet into an eccentric community, introducing her to each member of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Set up during Germany’s occupation of the island, the literary society came about as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were caught breaking the curfew but developed into a book club consisting of a cast of endearing characters. Through Juliet’s letters, we get to know each member of the society, in particular, their taste in books and how the German occupation impacted on their lives. Before long, she leaves London for Guernsey to meet her pen friends in the flesh and soon writes herself into their lives.
On the surface, the plot seems simple, but it’s cleverly conveyed through letters, allowing us an intimate insight into each character. By giving each one a direct voice, Mary Ann Shaffer allows you to feel like you’re discovering Guernsey and its occupants at the same time as Juliet. It was refreshing to read a female voice that is strong-willed without being severe. Juliet acts with determination whilst treating her new friends with kindness. Her insecurities at meeting the society’s members for the first time and living up to herself “on paper” is very relatable in the modern world where we present our best selves online.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society might be a heart-warming tale intertwined with a sweet love story, but it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war. Despite studying both World Wars repeatedly at school, including life on the Homefront, I hadn’t previously considered what it must’ve been like to live under German occupation on Guernsey or the prisoners of war that were taken away from their beloved island. In a quintessentially British way, Mary Ann Shaffer offsets the darkness with light-hearted humour, making the reality more digestible whilst educating us.
A celebration of reading and how books can guide you through difficult times, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a booklover’s dream and leaves you feeling as though you’ve been welcomed into the book club yourself.
The ending gave me a warm, glowing feeling that was bittersweet when I learned that it was Mary Ann Shaffer’s life-long dream to write a book, but she was diagnosed with cancer when she was writing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, so her niece helped her finish it and she died a few months before it was published. It’s so sad that she didn’t live to see the success of her work and the joyful escapism it has brought to readers.
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”