"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society": Letters about World War II
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow's novel "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" is the delightful story, told through letters, of a group of women on German-occupied Guernsey Island in World War II, and how their love of books and reading got them through the war.
Special to The Seattle Times
"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society"
by Mary Ann Shaffer
and Annie Barrows
Dial, 275 pp., $22
Epistolary novels, their venerable heritage ("Pamela") notwithstanding, are tough to pull off; if not done well, the lack of a narrative line can tend to cause them, and their readers' minds, to wander. And novels with unusual food or clothing in their titles ("Fried Green Tomatoes," "Traveling Pants") can justifiably raise suspicions that the reader is about to be treated to something terminally cute.
But with "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" the reader can relax and enjoy. It is a bit unfocused, but in the main moves along smoothly, and its potato-peel pie is a legitimate, if not terribly appetizing, dish that plays an actual role in the story.
The worst one can say of the book is that it is a "small blameless comfort," in that phrase of Barbara Pym's, creator of a few such comforts herself. Indeed, it is populated by characters who themselves are content with such comforts, such as real tea and bread with butter amid the scarcities of postwar rationing.
Co-authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows are aunt and niece. Or were; Shaffer died earlier this year. When she became ill, she called on Barrows, a children's book author, to help complete this novel on a subject with which she had become obsessed: Guernsey, one of the Channel Isles, under German occupation during World War II.
The letters exchanged by the couple dozen or so correspondents, mostly in Britain and Guernsey, span the period from January to September 1946. The story they tell has two interwoven strands: One involves the romantic entanglements of the chief character, 32-year-old London writer Juliet Ashton; the second involves her growing fascination with how the Guernsey islanders had weathered the five-year German rule.
One way several of them endured was through the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, formed as an alibi to deflect German suspicion about proscribed activities. Juliet learns of it from Dawsey Adams, an islander who writes her on a whim, having seen her name and address in a used book.
The notion of the society enchants Juliet, at loose ends in postwar London. She begins corresponding with a number of its members and becomes equally enchanted with them. And with reason — they are nearly universally delightful and for the most part believable as human beings.
Juliet learns that wartime adversity got them to read and discuss books they otherwise never would have considered. Eben Ramsey tells her that, in the bleakness and deprivation of the occupation, "We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us."
Isola Pribby, whose candor about her unprepossessing appearance recalls the brassbound stoic Coker in Joyce Cary's "The Horse's Mouth," says reading "perked up our spirits." Her quixotic behavior includes mixing and prescribing potions of dubious efficacy, though later she abandons that to practice phrenology on her fellow Society members.
Amid all this, and a subsequent visit to Guernsey, Juliet is trying to decide whether she really loves Markham Reynolds, a wealthy American publisher ardently pursuing her. Their courtship, frankly, is pretty sticky, he a handsome, square-jawed, capable Yank and she a lovely and intelligent, but slightly flighty, Brit. It turns out that he is also an overbearing Yank who essentially wants her as a pretty, intellectual showpiece.
This is a Happily Ever After novel — After, that is, Several Sorrows Are Endured. It is also a book-lover's delight, an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary, to libraries personal and public, to bookstores and their owners, customers and contents, and expressed in Juliet's comment to Dawsey: "That's what I love 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."
Come to think of it, that's sort of what the letters in this book do.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer
and editor and author of the
novel "Invisible Hero."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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