the guernsey literary and potato peel pie society

I’m generally about three years behind on the bestseller lists. You know that book about training dragons or kicking hornets’ nests or whatever? I haven’t read it. I should probably get around to it, but I’m still in the Dark Ages of 2008 reading books like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I know I’m likely the last person in the contiguous United States to read this and everyone else is sick of talking about it now, but I just read it for my book club and I’m all about it now.

I love novels that highlight a place or time I know little or nothing about. For example, channel islands? Who knew there were/are channel islands? I, for one, did not. But there are, and our fearless narrator, Juliet, begins to correspond with the inhabitants of one of them, Guernsey. She receives stories about the recent German occupation and the odd literary society the islanders created. They become besties, happiness and tragedy and then happiness again ensues, and Juliet falls in love. You can read the summary on Amazon. Let’s get to what I thought.

The book is what the fancies call an epistolary novel–it’s written as a series of letters back and forth between the characters. I loved hearing from so many different voices; Juliet’s dry humor was especially enjoyable. (Side note: Can we bring back the telegram? JUST GOT TO THE GROCERY STORE. HUGE SALE ON COTTON BALLS! DO WE NEED SOME? is so much more classy than a text message.) And a book about people reading books is always a favorite. One of the most profound thoughts came from an islander describing William Shakespeare and the day the Germans came:

“It seems to me the less he said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is “The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.” I wish I’d known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them–and come off ships down in the harbor! All I could think of was damn them, damn them, over and over. If I could have thought the words “the bright day is done and we are for the dark,” I’d have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance–instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.”

Books give us the words to understand and frame our circumstances. I may never have watched foreign invaders land on my turf, or had my spouse die, or won an Olympic gold, but I have felt despair, loss, and glee. The best characters show us our own emotions and the best authors give us a new way to express the oldest and most common thoughts.

For nuggets like that, I liked this book. I can’t sign off until I say one thing, though. The heroine of this story isn’t the narrator, it’s a character named Elizabeth McKenna. We never hear from her, just about her from all the other islanders, who romanticize her. She starts off as sweet and bold (she started the Literary Society), but by the end, she’s beyond believable. Can any one person really volunteer at the hospital, be best friends with everyone in the town, take care of the sick elderly, hide Polish Jews, fall in love with a German soldier and have his baby, inherit a huge estate even though she’s a lower-class person, and (spoiler!) die in a concentration camp by protecting someone else? Is anyone that virtuous without God? I doubt it. She became the insufferable hiccup in an otherwise fun read.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

photo: Brad Linberg

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