Mary Anne Shaffer, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

At first The Guernsey Literary etc. etc. reminded me of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. Epistolary narrative based on love of books, featuring England after the war… you’ll admit it’s close enough.  Shaffer’s book, though, is fiction, so she can move away from the basic premise and start pushing her characters around the way a novelist should.

The principal of these is Juliet Ashton, a young woman writer (are you surprised?) who is casting about for her post-war voice. (We’re in 1946.) The rest of the cast belong either to her literary life in London (publisher, best friend) or her new friends on Guernsey. It’s adroitly put together: Shaffer eases you into harrowing passages then cuts away briskly. Fortunately this isn’t really an adorable tale of cute oldsters founding some primordial wartime book group. Guernsey — who knew? — was occupied by the Germans beginning in 1940, and the privations included not only extreme shortages of food, fuel, and soap, but also a news blackout. What’s more two of the characters narrate their experiences in Continental camps (Ravensbruck, Belsen) and nothing could be further from cutesy than that.

A few of the characters are annoying: there’s a witch, a rustic who dreams up dreadful food (shades of “The Vicar of Dibley”) a spiteful spinster, a rich American with gleaming teeth. But there’s also a delicious stubborn four-year-old. Best yet, the diction — word choice, turn of phrase — is excellent. Juliet Ashton sounds English enough to have fooled me, and I’m a terrible pedant about this.

This title, by the way, would never have worked before computers brought us the auto-fill feature.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to Mary Anne Shaffer, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

  1. Pingback: Sarah Blake, “The Postmistress” « Book Group of One

  2. kathy lord says:

    i listened to this book on book cd. it was enjoyable in the car. flashes of world war 2 & thinking about how people endured during that time. the characters in the village were interesting to me. i liked how it was about the past & the present being in post world war 2 england on the island. what a contrast & an interesting way to write. the letters exchanged with the main character who is writing her own book & with the islanders was an interesting way to tell the tale.

    • carolwallace says:

      I bet this was fun to listen to, Kathy. I was afraid it was going to be sentimental and nostalgic but Shaffer resisted that temptation, making it a much more interesting read than the packaging and reputation had suggested. (Also true of Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, btw.)

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