Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Book Review)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society cover

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is a novel told entirely by letters sent between the characters. It’s unique, and feels appropriate for these word-loving people of the 1940s, though it does at times create a distance between the reader and events. When protagonist Juliet Ashton is about to meet some pen-pals in person for the first time, she writes about the worry that “I have become better at writing than living” – a strange twist for the novel reader, who only ever knows her through that writer’s personality!

Guernsey is a small island in the English Channel that was occupied by Germany in World War II. The novel tells of Juliet, a London author seeking inspiration for her next book, meeting up with its people shortly after the war ended. The literary society was initially formed as a front to escape German attention, but its plainspoken farmers soon learned to find meaning and even purpose in books. That moral is none too subtle, but sure to please the novel’s audience.

The rest of the plot is no subtler, though. The whole arc of it will be obvious from the first few pages, and the only surprises are when harsh memories of the war intrude. These do lend the story some heft, but the occupation is still past, and there is never the slightest threat to anyone during the time the story is unfolding. In addition to Juliet’s quest for new material, the main plot is a traditional romance. The authors almost seem to casually dismiss it: The initial suitor (who of course won’t work out) is never given much attention, as the important interactions with him take place outside of letters. The later interest is treated as an obvious choice by so many characters that it doesn’t seem like it should matter as a source of tension at all.

Neither plot is really worth attention, actually. The authors make the strange choice to keep Juliet’s professional writing out of the pages she writes here, so we only learn about it second-hand. At a turning point, her friend and editor advises Juliet that her story “lacks a center” and helps her find one. Unfortunately, this novel has the same problem and never does resolve it. The reason to read it is in its characters, who are the sort of quirky, life-loving people who would name their book club after “potato peel pie”. However, funny events like that are be best experienced directly, not filtered through after-the fact letter-writing. Fortunately, the later portions of the book take place once Juliet has met them, and is mainly updating her friends back home about her adventures, so the telling takes on a much more linear, traditional story structure.

Even so, the letter-writing structure of the book is fun. It’s the main thing that saves this from being a weightless story about people the authors wish were their friends. Love for the setting and the characters drive it even when the plot cannot.

Grade: B-

  1. Although it doesn’t sound like the plot to this book was the best, I love reading about people who love books, so I might give this one a try 🙂 Thanks for the helpful review!

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