The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Review by Mary E. McKay-Eaton
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I reserved an entire day curled up in bed under my goose down quilt (an extravagant Christmas present from my husband) and a big travel mug of Coke Zero to read this book. I chose my bedroom because it was the farthest location from my laptop that still allowed me to stay indoors. I didn’t want the siren call of the Internet to lure me away from reading Mary Ann Shaffer’s book, certainly not after I read the first page:
8th January, 1946Mr. Sidney Stark, Publisher
Stephens & Stark Ltd.
21 St. James’s Place
London S.W. 1
Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won’t mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let’s try it—you may deduct the money from my royalties…
Now how could I resist an opener such as that? I was instantly sucked in. What could I discern about the protagonist in this letter to her publisher? First, she is witty, with that unique British sense of humor. The way everything is phrased in that short paragraph paints a vivid picture as to her character. Second, that she notices details like sugar and eggs. Third, that she is generous. In a time of scarcity, she is willing to give up a portion of her hard earned royalties to reward someone for extra work—although you have to admit there’s some self interest here: the meringue does sound scrumptious and with real butter one can make a pound cake. Also, her generosity extends to honest acknowledgment of the efforts of others, as her paean to Susan Scott testifies. Fourth, the protagonist is an author and is on a book tour, one that will take her all over the country—England. However, the last detail—the date, 1946, Post-World War II—firmly establishes the setting and together with the other details solidified my expectations. I expected a historical setting, humor, and quite possibly a peek into the mind of a writer pursuing her craft.
The book exceeded my expectations. Despite its lamentably short length (only 279 pages of narrative), the book is incredibly rich and evocative—at times, heartbreakingly so. But unlike Thomas Hardy, who could describe anything to great length, Shaffer manages to work her magic with an economy of language and an understated pithiness that makes her a sheer joy to read.
That first letter goes on to say:
Now for my grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn’t. Notice how the author has the character flat out admit she’s faltering: Sidney, it isn’t. There is a refreshing forthrightness to it that made me love the character right then and there. There is no whining, no defensiveness to her admission, no beating around the bush. Sidney, it isn’t. Short and to the point.
English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators’ Trade Union, marching down an Oxford street with the placards screaming “Down with Beatrix Potter!” But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that’s what.
I no longer want to write this book—my head and my heart just aren’t in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is—and was—to me, I don’t want to write anything else under that name. I don’t want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. 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. I can’t seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one cannot write humor without them.
In the meantime, I am very happy Stephens & Stark is making money on Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. It relieves my conscience over the debacle of my Anne Brontë biography.
My thanks for everything and love,
P.S. I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you knowwhat that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? “My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes.” I hope Jane spat on her.
I laughed out loud at the last. Seriously, out loud, in my bedroom, with abandon. Garnering a rather odd look from my cat, who I’d woken with my laughter. I hope Jane spat on her. Now this, I thought to myself, is a woman with brains and spirit. This book couldn’t possibly be dull. And it wasn’t. My first impression, immutably fixed by that opening letter, was confirmed over and over throughout the book. This book wasn’t dull, it was riveting.
Nothing quite grabs the reader like a first-person account. It’s immediate and it’s personal. With that in mind, Shaffer frames the story as an epistolary novel. It is a story literally told through the letters and journal entries of the characters. Juliet Ashton is the author of the delightful letter above and the opening pages skillfully introduces the supporting characters as they write their letters back and forth. Juliet is enduring a grueling tour schedule, Susan and Sidney are her publishers, and Sophie is Juliet’s sounding board for matters of the heart. A wealth of information is given in only four short letters.
The plot advances quietly with a letter from Mr. Dawsey Adams of Guernsey, of Britain’s Channel Islands. He has stumbled across a used book with her name and address written on it and having read it and loved the author, could she send him the name of a bookseller in London? He is interested in reading more books by Charles Lamb. It’s a polite and almost sweet letter, and it deftly introduces the main focus of the book: Dawsey may be a pig farmer but he has a mind and spirit nourished by the printed word and would like to acquire more. The German Occupation of Guernsey during the war was not kind to its inhabitants and were it not for the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society coming together over an illicit dinner of roast pig, he would not have survived to write that letter.
Thus Shaffer draws the reader in. German Occupation? Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? Illicit roast pig? What?
Juliet’s reply is warm and kind and funny. She tells Dawsey of her love of books, of how she felt like a traitor for selling her extra copy of Charles Lamb, but was in dire need of shelf-space. That book was the one that had found its way into Dawsey Adam’s hands and Juliet shares with Dawsey (and the rest of us) what she loves about reading:
… one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
Again I crowed from beneath my comforter, this time with delighted recognition of a kindred spirit. Yes! This is why I read, this is why I love books and writing—that little unexpected something, that unlooked-for bonus, that spurs us down an unanticipated path of inquiry. The thrill of the hunt, the pleasure of discovery, the warm glow of recognition … all these things and more are encompassed in that passage. Here, I thought, was no merely pithy writer, but an insightful one as well.
That was it. I was hooked. I had to read the book from beginning to end in one fell swoop. My laundry would go undone, the dishes could fester in my kitchen sink and Devil take hindmost with dinner—I would finish Juliet’s story and satisfy my curiosity.Just what was the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? How was it formed and how did the pig figure into it? I read through several letters between Juliet and her publishing friends, laughed and cringed and sighed in relief over an unfortunate incident involving a muckraking journalist and a hurled teapot, before Dawsey makes his appearance again. In it he describes Guernsey as it was during the German Occupation: the capriciousness of the laws the Germans imposed, the dire consequences for infractions, and how the Society was invented by a clever woman in the form of one Elizabeth McKenna. It was she who invented the Society to cover their illegal dinner and walk home after curfew. She made it up on the spot, while facing down six German patrolmen with an equal number of Lugers in her face. A quick-witted and silver-tongued woman, was this Elizabeth.
As the letters go back and forth between Juliet and the Literary Society a picture of Guernsey and its inhabitants emerges. It’s compelling in its humor and sorrow, ingenuity and desperation, and the unexpected humanity one finds in the enemy. The letters draw Juliet in, she becomes invested in the people of the island even as she casts about for the subject of her next book.We see it before she does. As interesting as the stories of Guernsey are, the story of Elizabeth is the one worth pursuing. Her past is suitably unconventional, making for an unexpected heroine. And heroine she is: her exploits in circumventing the Germans’ restrictions, her affair with a German soldier, her willingness to harbor an escaped slave laborer, and her subsequent deportation to a camp on the Continent—it is a mystery Juliet wants to solve. Who was Elizabeth, really? How did she touch the lives of everyone in the Society and the town at large? What happened to her on the Continent at German hands? What happened to the German doctor, her lover and the father of her child? Now that the war is over, why is she still missing and when would she come home?
As Juliet’s friendship with the Society members grows through their letters, so do the questions surrounding Elizabeth’s life and disappearance. Her daughter is four, fathered by the enemy yet perversely beloved of the community and raised by all. Elizabeth stands to inherit an estate on the island but cannot be found to legalize the transfer. The many lives she’d touched, and outright saved, have gone on to better futures and they too, wonder. As does Juliet. While her new book will be about Guernsey and the Literary Society, its backbone would be the story of Elizabeth. It’s plain as day in the letters Juliet and her friends have written. It is the thread that ties them all together, the framework on which everything hangs. The key to the mystery.
Shaffer isn’t content to stop there, however, but offers us another thread in the narrative, that of the slowly emerging romance between two shy people, attracted to but unable to declare their feelings for each other. It’s done respectfully and well, without the insult of melodrama or saccharine sweetness. It isn’t a contrived plot device. It reads and feels true. I won’t reveal the ending. It deserves to be read as it is written, growing organically and paying off wonderfully.And yet, mystery aside, romance aside, everywhere there is a love of books, of discussion of books, of how thoughts and friendships fostered by books sustained a besieged community, one reader at a time. These people did it the old-fashioned way. Unplugged. Offline. In person. Face to face. It is that human contact that saved them and as much as I love my laptop, there is nothing it can do to beat that.
Do take the time away from the electronic blandishments of the Internet era, and read Mary Ann Shaffer’s book. You’ll be very glad you did.
Thank you, Mary, for this thorough and thoughtful review!
Your Turn: Have you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society? If so, tell us your thoughts below!