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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Societyby Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Perfect for book groups, a charming series of letters make up this short novel set in post-WWII Europe. The correspondents, drawn together by their love of books and affection for each other, collectively tell a moving tale of endurance and friendship in the shadow of war.
Synopses & Reviews
"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."
January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she's never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb...
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends — and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island — boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.
Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
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,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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 best-selling 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 Brontes 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. Reviewed by Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Reminiscent of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, this is a warm, funny, tender, and thoroughly entertaining celebration of the power of the written word. This marvelous debut novel, sure to have book club appeal, is highly recommended." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"I can't remember the last time I discovered a novel as smart and delightful as this one, a world so vivid that I kept forgetting this was a work of fiction populated with characters so utterly wonderful that I kept forgetting they weren't my actual friends and neighbors. Treat yourself to this book, please — I can't recommend it highly enough." Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
"Though it deals with a dark period in history, this first novel is an essentially sunny work....The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a sweet, sentimental paean to books and those who love them." The Washington Post Book World
"Elizabeth and Juliet are appealingly reminiscent of game but gutsy '40s movie heroines. The engrossing subject matter and lively writing make this a sure winner, perhaps fodder for a TV series." Kirkus Reviews
"Written in the form of letters (a lost art), this novel by an aunt-and-niece team has loads of charm, especially as long as Juliet is still in London corresponding with the society members." Booklist
London, 1946: writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of Guernsey during the German occupation, and about a society as extraordinary as its name.
As London is emerging from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton discovers her next subject in a book club on Guernsey — a club born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi after its members are discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island.
About the Author
Mary Ann Shaffer worked as an editor, a librarian, and in bookshops. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was her first novel.
Her niece, Annie Barrows, is the author of the children's series Ivy and Bean, as well as The Magic Half.
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