I’ll admit it. I am probably the last person in America to have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This 2008 blockbuster novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has become the darling of book clubs everywhere for good reason. It’s a compelling historical novel (World War II era) in epistolary form. If you dislike novels written in letters, this one may change your mind. The letters are so skillfully edited and arranged to keep the story moving through multiple viewpoints focused on a little-known segment of World War II–the German occupation of the Channel Islands. These islands, as you may not realize, were closer to France than Great Britain. The hardships endured by the people there are fresh on the minds of their writers in 1946–when the through-story takes place.
An interesting aside is how family can support one another. The author Shaffer became seriously ill before the book was published. Her capable niece, children’s author Annie Barrows, stepped in to complete the project, one that Shaffer would never realize its full success: she died in Feb. 1, 2008.
I came to this novel with some trepidation. I’d heard a lot about it, and generally when something has such fanfare I find the result disappointing. Not so with Guernsey. Not only did I find the characters compelling and well-drawn, but the place became such a character of its own, I’d like to visit some day.
As peelings hold a white tuber together, the structure of letters written, however brief, keep the story flowing without effort. The story of courage and endurance amid cruelty harkens to the islanders subsistence on such fare as turnip soup and such contrivances as potato peel pie. Here is a book that takes you to that dark time more than 70 years ago.
The main character is Juliet Ashton, newspaper columnist who is slated to be portrayed by Kate Winslett in the movie version. I’ll be watching for that one in 2013.