For sheer enjoyment, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of the best books of the year. This quirky title brings with it a quirky novel that, if the world is fair, will appear on summer bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Looking around for new inspiration for her books in 1946, English author Juliet Ashton finds it in letters she receives from inhabitants of the Channel Island of Guernsey. They write seeking her help in literary matters, and, incidentally, telling of their remarkable history as a German possession during World War II. As an epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society captures the immediacy of the Guernsey Islanders’ experience during the German occupation in a way that arguably could not have been expressed otherwise.
Surprisingly, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was begun by an American book editor and bookseller, Mary Ann Shaffer, who found herself fascinated by Channel Island history. After she became ill, and later died, her niece, children’s book author Annie Barrows, completed the novel.
Besides revealing that the British postal system is apparently much faster than our own (letters and their answers are sometimes dated the same day!), this maze of interactive letter writers sheds reflective light on each other and their literary society, which was formed spontaneously to protect Islanders from Nazi retribution. Beyond that, one learns more serious lessons, including the variant results of war on different societies. (Americans, even after the War, are seen as relatively “un-mangled by it.”) Despite this book’s American provenance, its wit bears all the earmarks of the sly and whimsical English take on life, which is not just colorful here, but prismatic.
For some readers, grinning may be optional throughout this book. For many of us, however, despite some serious subject matter, it is unavoidable. “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books,” says one letter writer, so be forewarned: your level of tolerance may be lowered by this delightful, unforgettable novel.
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.