“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. How delightful if that were true…”
…muses Juliet Ashton, the charming heroine of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a novel by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. Fortunately for her, this story features a book that does find its perfect reader, and her life is greatly enriched as a result.
I first picked up The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for a mix of the odd reasons someone might decide to read a book: I was interested in the post-World War II setting, the concept of a book club sounded fascinating, and I wanted to find out more about that mouthful of a title. The novel’s epistolary format also drew me in. Letters between characters give unique insight into their development since they’re sharing confidences with each other, and the format served these characters particularly well.
A Lesser-Known History
Juliet Ashton is a London-based writer with a bad case of writer’s block. Despite her troubles, she is hopeful as she reflects on how England has survived World War II. At the start, her publisher-friend Sidney and her best friend Sophie are her primary confidantes, until she receives a letter from a kindly stranger who introduces himself as Dawsey Adams, a farmer from the English Channel island of Guernsey. Through him, Juliet begins writing to a group of Guernsey residents who have just survived German occupation. One thing that helped them endure was their book club, which they dubbed “the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” Juliet realizes she wants to write about this group, so she travels to Guernsey to meet them.
This little book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is a joy from cover to cover. The historical context engages the audience with a piece of lesser-known history. I had never heard of Guernsey, let alone the Nazi takeover of the territory during World War II. The book accomplishes a delicate balance between exploring this heavy topic and retaining a cheerful tone, primarily through the vivid characters. Each one has delightful quirks and the reader wants the very best for them. Every time Juliet gained a new correspondent, I wanted to join one of the Guernsey book club meetings even more. The most powerful aspect of this novel rests in the running motif of books and reading, however. The story offers a compelling commentary on the ability of books to form unlikely friendships and to provide comfort and safety during hardship.
Friendships Grown from Books
Unlikely friendships form around books constantly in Guernsey. Dawsey’s initial letter to Juliet sets the stage for the direction of the story, and it was a secondhand book with Juliet’s address inside that first motivated him to write. Even before Dawsey tells Juliet about his book club friends, she finds deep joy in this pen-based friendship that would not have begun without a book. That joy grows as she begins corresponding with the other Guernsey residents, as does her curiosity, which eventually leads her to meet them in person so that she can further explore a book idea of her own.
Books represent the beginning and the driving force in Juliet’s friendships with her Guernsey correspondents, as she is ever aware and for which she remains grateful. The Guernsey book club itself also represents friendships grown from books. Many club members were mere acquaintances at first, but the books they discuss draw them together in a deeper way. One member, Amelia Maugery, describes it affectionately by writing to Juliet, “We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.”
Books also represent safety and comfort in this novel. The Guernsey book club is more than a trite ritual to pass time. It becomes a refuge, haven, and comfort as the war rages. Amelia writes to Juliet, “our evenings together became bright, lively times – we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside.” Additionally, books have always been a source of escape and pleasure for Juliet. She says in a letter to Dawsey, “That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”
Their Story Ought to Be Told
Juliet’s experience with the islanders enhances both her love of reading and her belief in its power. They open her eyes to a side of the war that she didn’t personally experience, and she believes their story ought to be told so that her audiences might be comforted and inspired in the way she always has been through reading. Interestingly, the Guernsey residents also seem to mirror England at large: Both are in a stage of rebuilding. As the Guernsey book club finds strength in their books and one another, Juliet draws encouragement from that message and wants to offer it to a wider audience through her own writing.
Ever since I finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I have been constantly recommending it, primarily for the charming characters and the strong theme of books and reading. Dawsey’s quiet strength steadied me as it steadies Juliet in the story, and I found Amelia Maugery’s nurturing protectiveness over the other book club members deeply moving. I felt just as excited as Juliet was when she arrived in Guernsey to meet them for the first time.
Books have long been a symbol of comfort for me as well, so the image of the islanders forgetting about the war for a few hours over books instantly resonated with me. Reading may be a solitary act, but it can also be a deeply social one that brings people together in personal ways, and this lovely novel demonstrates that delightfully.