29 January 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer

I read this book while I was home over Christmas. I’m only just now blogging about it because…well, because that’s how my job has been lately.

The book is told through letters exchanged between the main characters (in my English-major days, I would have described it as “epistolary,” and I admit that I gleaned some enjoyment from having remembered that word). I bought the book before I was aware of this, and if I’m being honest, I probably wouldn’t have bought it if I’d realized that. I usually don’t care for reading letters within books, and again, in the interest of full disclosure, I generally skip over them if they’re inserted in the middle of a novel. I shouldn’t. This book taught me that reading letters reveals far more about the character than the mere contents of the letter itself; I grew fond (or not so fond, depending) of these characters as I learned their individual vernaculars, writing styles, vocabularies, and syntax.

If book awards were given out like the SAG awards, then this book would be in the “Outstanding Performance – Ensemble (Drama)” category. Although there is a “main character” in Juliet Ashton (by the by, how much do I love her name? VERY.) other characters are more developed than the usual supporting characters are, which makes the book more satisfying.

Brief plot synopsis (courtesy of amazon.com, who for once did a pretty decent job): “The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet's name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book's epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories. The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incident—including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupation—and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed. But Juliet's quips are so clever, the Guernsey inhabitants so enchanting and the small acts of heroism so vivid and moving that one forgives the authors (Shaffer died earlier this year) for not being able to settle on a single person or plot. Juliet finds in the letters not just inspiration for her next work, but also for her life—as will readers.”

This isn’t “literary fiction” at its most literary, but it’s often funny and heartwarming, and it was the perfect book to entertain me during my Christmastime illness. In case you're wondering: yes, the book does explain what a potato peel pie is.

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