Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

"I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."

In the tradition of 84, Charing Cross Rd., this is a story of human connections forged by books. The story of neighbors being seen through the darkest times by their discovery of great literature. The story of woman who finds peace, meaning, and love while chasing down the idea for a story. Mary Ann Shaffer's 2008 novel weaves together many different life stories to create one sweet one that many people the world over have enjoyed.

The Plot:

It's 1946 and London is emerging from the destruction of WWII. Writer Juliet Ashton has just released her first book, and is now musing over ideas for her next one. One day, she begins a chance correspondence from a man on the island of Guernsey who has found her name inscribed in a copy of a book by Charles Lamb. Through their letters, Juliet learns of the eccentric and unusual club on the island known as the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As she begins to correspond with many members of the society, Juliet learns more about this accidental group of islanders who began as an excuse for being out past curfew during the German occupation. One by one, each member wriggles their way into Juliet's heart, and she soon finds herself having to choose between her fame and future in London, and a life among friends on Guernsey.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was a novel that I had heard a lot about over the last couple of years. I finally picked it up when the bookseller from whom I was purchasing 84, Charing Cross Rd. from recommended it as an accompanying novel. And in many ways, it is a good companion piece, as both are epistolary novels about people coming together through their love of books.

Let's start out by discussing what this book is not. It's not great literature. Sometimes, it even borders on being not even really good literature. My biggest beef is the characters. Not only do they not seem very British (Juliet especially), but they are also very one-dimensional. You are very pleased with them at first, especially since letters are a great way to give characters depth and intimacy. But after awhile you begin to realize that each individual character ends exactly as they begin. There is little to no development. Isola begins eccentric and ends eccentric. Elizabeth begins heroic and ends heroic. Dawsey begins shy and caring and ends shy and caring. Get the picture? Add to this the fact that the many topics that Shaffer tries to cover in the novel only get surface treatment. Whether it is WWII, homosexuality, feminisim, tolerance, or community, very little is given any kind of depth. There is a line in the novel that says
"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." and unfortunately that kind of holds true for this story.

Now, having said that, I did still enjoy this book quite a bit. Maybe I needed a break from the clunkers. Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I read it. But I think the main thing that hooked me was the pure love of great literature that shines throughout the whole novel. Seeing these ordinary people fall head over heels for the likes of Austen and Lamb was delightful. I love books that simply take the time to celebrate books. The situation of the characters also made me realize just how precious stories are, and how they can help you overcome even some of life's most horrible situations.

So, do I recommend it? It's hard to say, really. Again, you have to go into it knowing that this isn't the next great American novel and that the writing is not exactly up to par (Gilead this ain't). But if you love books about books, and if you are looking for a halfway decent way to spend a rainy afternoon, this might work out for you. Everybody needs a bit of fluff in their reading diet. I'm not completely had over heels for it, but it wasn't all bad, either. Let's just say that I liked it in spite of myself.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your review, especially as it's different from my own reaction to the book.
I really enjoyed this book. Granted, it's not in the same class as Austin or other classics, but still...
I liked how every character had their own distinct feel. When I was reading each character's letter, I knew, by the intonations, etc. who was speaking.
Could you please expand your point about the lack of development in the characters? I'm not sure I understand what you are trying to say with that paragraph. (I'm feeling very dense tonight.)
I think a certain lack of dimension is always present in letters, because they are, by their very nature, one-dimensional.

bookwormans said...

You're right in that each character has their own distinct feel, and that's problem tended to be that each character had only one distinct feel. They just weren't as complex as I like for my literary characters to be. Isola was sweet and eccentric and nothing more. There just didn't seem to be a lot of depth to any of the characters. Maybe you are right in that the letter structure doesn't leave a lot of room for this.

Again, I really did like the book. I don't feel that a book has to be "great literature" in order to be enjoyed. Lord knows I've read lots of enjoyable books that aren't part of the literary canon. I just feel that when I review a book, I should give some space to its structure as well as my personal feelings on it. To me, it gives the reader a well rounded view of what they're in for.

Overall, it is very a sweet and fun read, you just shouldn't go into it looking for Pulitzer Prize depth and tone.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for expanding that, I understand better now what you mean about the characters' dimension.
I absolutely think you should write about what doesn't "jive" with you about any aspect of the book. And you're right to let readers know what they're in for.

Netherland said...

Reading this book took me to a far away land where time seems to stand still and where romance and faith yearn. I loved the style of writing- made for a very quick read but one that I want to keep read over and over!