Friday, March 5, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Edition: Paperback, 2009
Read: March 2010
274 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

Society, so I shall call this book, takes place shortly after World War II. The book is a fictional account as told through a series of letters about and by Juliet Ashton. She is portrayed as a successful writer, who by chance, starts to correspond with people on the island of Guernsey. The letters are connected with people who are part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They go over life on the island during World War II, during the German occupation. Juliet is so infatuated, she goes over to the island for an extended time, leaving a lover to find love.

The virtue of this book is in the story telling. Shaffer wrote the book; her neice, Annie Barrows revised it after Shaffer could not complete it. The voice is Shaffer and it is a good voice. The device of using letters to tell the story allows for many voices and perspectives to play in. She sets the letters in date order so you need to follow several threads at once. Sometimes you needs to go back and find what a particular conversation is about though.

Part of the story is talking about three romances: a broken engagement; a one-sided engagement; and the real thing. You see Juliet being willful, but also confused; clear about her actions, but oblivious to her own emotions.

The second part is telling about peoples lives on the island. As said, these people have the opportunity to express what they felt living through the occupation of English terriotories by the Germans. Their strength and their friendships. How a book society bonded strangers together,to help them make it through the occupation.

One of the problems with writing a fictional book in a historical setting is getting the tone right while not making it stilted. A lot of time Shaffer does place the tone correctly. But at other places in the book, she is so 21st century. Such as when Sidney writes Juliet and says that he wished Juliet had aimed at a much more manly location with a hot teapot. That does not seem like something which a man would write to a women 60 years ago (pg 21). Or Sidney admitting to being a homosexual to someone who he just met.

Shaffer does a good job of building up characters. Such as Dawsey Adams. An early description is that he has a rare gift of persuasion—he never asks for anything for himself, but always for others. So others are always eager to do things for him. What a great characteristic this is. Again, on page 161, Juliet notes, “I begin to see, this is what he does—that everyone depends upon him to do it.” The “it” is being helpfuil, noting places where pepole have a need.

To me, the big wondering is, what did Shaffer/or Barrows have against Christinaity? There are places in the book which make a strong religious impression:

  • Reverand Simpless, while not Juliet's guardian takes an interest in her well being after her parents die. But nothing is said about his religion. Juliet does mention that while a friend would say something is coicidnce, Simpless would say it is Grace. But in the book's definition, Grace sounds more like a word for coincidence or throwing out energy. This really lacks any approach to the Christian context of Grace.

  • Shaffer comments about Anne Bronte's Aunt's religon, which was Methodist. She wondered how Bronte was ever able to write given the strictness of the Aunt's religion (pg61). Apparently Elizabeth Branwell was strick and religious. But she had a warmth for Anne Bronte. Going so far as leaving a comfortable life to bring up the Bronte girls.

  • This is followed by a letter from Adelaide Addison to Juliet. The letter said for Juliet to stay away from the Society. The whole letter seems like a characterture of anything Christian. But from a Christian viewpoint, it sounds like societal snobbery bathed in Christian expression (page 127)

A main character is Elizabeth McKenna. Juliet never meets her—she dies in a Nazi concentration camp. But all the members of the Society thinks very highly of her—probably thinks she is a saint. While not the opposite of Addison, she is a contrast. Someone who does good by nature. She saves others at the sacrifice of herself. She is kind, caring, calming. Juliet decides at the end of the book, she will write her story.

The final letter has Juliet finding love and getting engaged. She remarks that she always thought the story ends when the girl and guy gets engaged. But that is only the beginning. She is right. The dance to engagement is a prequel to the real thing. Like in Lewis' Last Battle, going through the gate of death enters you into a bigger land, not smaller.

How do you select your next book? Juliet suggests there are three questions to ask what looks like a knowledgable person, in her case, a clerk in a book store. This is taken from page 16.

  1. What is the book about?

  2. Have you read the book?

  3. Was it any good?
Of course, the last one is more of a preference of the reader. A person who detests romance books will not find books in this gendre very interesting. But this does get into the question of what makes a book good? In my case, does it cause me to either examine my world, makes me think, or written in a way to peak my personal interests.

Why does Juliet make the statement that she would prefer suitors in books than in front of her? (pg 121) What does it say about her character? In the rest of the book, she seems rather personable, even though we know her through letters. She does well at book groupings and in front of strangers. The two romanaces we know about, Rob and Mark, both are self-absorbed mean. See Mark's statement on page 154 about you make me happy, you never bore me, … it is all about him. The same with Rob's trophy's taking precendent over Juliet's books. What about her draws her to these type of men? But what about Dawsey? Is he another one of these?

This is a good book, one which I would not mind recommending someone to read. It reads quickly and flows nicely. Do not expect great truths to appear.
First Line:
Susan Scott is a wonder.
Maybe its because that I know Susan Scott—not this one—but this line really drew me in to wondering about who this Susan Scott is. Of course, the rest of the book is not about her. So this line is only a teaser.

Cast of Characters:

  • Juliet Ashton – main character. Successful writer. Attractive and intelligent.
  • Elizabeth McKenna- Died in concentration camp, so we never meet this character, except in what others write
  • Sidney Stark – Good friend of Juliet, but not a romantic interest.
  • Sophie (Stark) – Good friend of Juliet. Went to school. Juliet's confidant.
  • Dawsey Adams – First person on Guernsey to make contact with Juliet
  • Susan Scott-Administrative Assistant. Minor character, sets things right.
  • Isola Pheen. An eccentric personality. Single person. Shaffer seems to have an interest in Oscar Wilde. In Isola's possession, Juliet found 8 letters from OFOFWW, which turned out to be Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde had a sister by the name of Isola.

Notes from my book group:
What about this book drew you in?

Do you think this is a book which had a homing instinct for you? (pg 10)

What endears you to this book?

Will Thisbee describes what he would have missed if he did not belong to the Society. What would you have missed? (pg 102) Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 says that books are not people. Which has a better perspective? Why?

How do you evaluate a good? How would you recommend this book, based upon Shaffer's criteria? (pg 16)

For those of you who bought the book, is this a keeper? For those who borrowed it-do you buy it?

New Words:

  • golliwog: an animated doll in children's fiction by Bertha Upton †1912 American writer

  • antiquarian ironmonger: we call an antique dealer today

  • rag-and-bone man: the original recyclers. People who would go throug streets collecting rags,

  • fulsome: characterized by abundance

  • Pictish Ambush: An ambush where the Picts feigned a retreat, then overwhelmed their opponets in Scotland

  • prime: earliest stage, or the most active, thriving or satisfying stage

  • metier: vocation or trade, activity which a person excells in

  • German, meaning 'camp street'; It was the main street of the death camps.

  • Nosy-Parker: an officious annoying person who interferes with others

Good Quotes:

  • Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that bring them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true. (pg10)

  • Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books (pg 53)


Book References:

  • Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia , also on Google

  • Charles Lamb, Selected Letters

  • Seneca, The Letters of Seneca: Translated from Latin in One Volume with Appendix

  • Thomas Carlye, Past and Present

  • Anne Bronte, Sir Roger de Coverly Papers

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