My rating: 4.5 out of 5
One of my favorite things about a historical fiction or narrative nonfiction book is when it sheds a beam of light into a previously unknown corner of something that you thought you already knew all about.
For example, I thought I pretty much had World War II down. Between personal reading, film, and the fact that WWII was pretty much the only thing we seemed to learn about in history class, I thought I had a pretty good overview of the time period. And then along comes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, telling a story that I’d never heard before: the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, specifically Guernsey, and what it was like to try to survive under conditions that I’d never associated with that part of Europe.
The protagonist is Juliet, a British woman in her 30s whose life and writing career are at a turning point. WWII is recently over; she’s just become a bestselling author but is anxious to try a different style of writing; her apartment and all her possessions have been bombed; as a single woman in the 1940s, she’s beginning to wonder if she ought to consider finding herself a husband. Intelligent, sassy, warm, and independent, she is soon swept up in two different worlds: the dazzling cocktails-and-dancing world of a wealthy American suitor, and the quieter charms of an eclectic group of readers and survivors on the island of Guernsey.
Through correspondences between Juliet and members of the delightful supporting cast, the reader falls in love with Juliet’s London friends, the people of Guernsey and their resilience, and even the dashing but possibly dastardly American. Shockingly, a degree of affection for some of the German occupying forces begins to develop as the authors reveal their humanity, reminding the reader that many soldiers end up fighting wars in which they don’t believe. That’s something that I hadn’t really experienced in other WWII literature; the temptation to draw one’s enemy as a caricature is generally overwhelming. On the other hand, this book also exposed me to Nazi atrocities that I’d never heard of before, through the story of one of the founding members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Ultimately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book about people who love books, and about their power to bring people together and keep them going when the going seems not only tough but even impossible. It’s about the power of individual stories to illuminate the truth about communities. Sure, it’s also about WWII, and it’s also a romantic tale (Will Juliet give in to Mark’s protestations of love? Is Sidney truly not Mark’s romantic rival? Is there someone entirely different waiting for Juliet in the wings?) but at its heart, this book is about literature and how art can shape and save your life.
I’ll admit that it took me a little while to succumb to this book’s charms. The January pick for my book club, it had received rave reviews from a startling number of my bookish friends on Goodreads… and I just didn’t get it. At first. The biggest stumbling block for me — the fact that this is an epistolary novel (written in letter form) — was actually a selling point for many readers. Having to wait for character traits, relationships, and background information to unfurl through a series of notes, telegrams, and letters threw the brakes on for me, but once I had the major players fleshed out in my imagination, the novel really took off and I began to find the format more enchanting than distracting.
It’s a perfect choice for a book club, and a great recommendation for any aficionado of history or literature. I’ve already passed my copy to my mom, who loves great historical fiction, and would like to get it into the hands of my fellow English teachers. I’m hoping they might be as amused as I was by the multitudinous (but not annoyingly so) literary references, and by the names of the protagonist and her eventual love.
(Endnote: It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I took some time to research Guernsey. I’d been under the impression that it was a British island and that its citizens were British, but it’s actually a British Crown dependency — the responsiblity, in terms of defense, of the UK, but not actually a part of it. Geographically, Guernsey is much closer to France than it is to England, and both languages are common there as well as some small regional dialects. It consists of six islands with a total size of 24 square miles, and today about 63,000 people call Guernsey home.)