When the title of the book is so intriguing, you expect a lot from the book itself. Once you get over the intrigue factor of the title, you find that the book is about a book club formed in the town of Guernsey which is the only British land occupied by the Germans during World War 2. The name of the book club is ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’. (My fingers ache!) There is an interesting story behind why the club was named that way and I think you should read the book for that.
The book starts with Juliet Ashton celebrating the success of her latest book and searching for a topic for her next book. She gets an unexpected letter from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey who has a copy of her old and abandoned book “The Selected Essays of Elia” by Charles Lamb. Dawsey contacts her wishing to know where he can find more books from the same author. Dawsey happens to be a member of the book club and thus starts Juliet’s interaction with the other members of the book club. Juliet finds the club and its survival during the Occupation very engaging and decides to explore further if it can be turned into a book. We see Juliet landing in Guernsey and meeting other people on the island to collect their version of the Occupation.
The entire book is written in the form of letters. We see letters being exchanged between all the characters and this gives a different structure to the book. There is no single omnipotent narrator and each character takes turn to narrate the story and though this is some form of omnipotence, it introduces its own set of complexities. There are many places where a character would not include certain things in the letter, but since this is intended for a reader, the author had to include it. There is a letter from Juliet to Sidney about a gift that he sent.
What an inspired present you sent Kit – red satin tap shoes covered with sequins
It’s obvious the author included this because there is no other way the reader would have known what gift Sidney sent, but if Juliet was actually writing this letter, she would not have included this detail. Since the main essence of the book is the idea of letters being sent by a group of people in an unknown island to a writer, I can understand why the author chose her entire book to be in the form of letters. But tactless inclusion of details like above (the author could have included the detail in a smarter way) makes you click your tongue and distracts you from the story.
I personally found the structure unappealing. To keep track of who sent the letter to whom and when was a big problem for me. I have read similar structured books before (We Need to Talk about Kevin), but this book is particularly taxing because of the short letters and too many characters. After a point of time, I wanted to scream ‘Forget the letters, just get on with the story’.
Characters – there is no dearth in this book. There are characters in all forms – gender, race, nationality, quirks, nature, age. One character that stood out for me was Elizabeth McKenna. The irony is she doesn’t appear in the book but is only mentioned by the other characters and this adds a bit of mystery to her. Isola also springs to my mind as an interesting character. The protagonists though leave a lot to be desired.
Mary Ann Shaffer started writing this book and had to rope in her niece Annie Barrows to complete it because Mary was diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t live to celebrate the success of her book.
It’s a charming little book, as the English would call it, but I didn’t find anything extraordinary in it. Yes, there are some good things in the book, but I don’t think you would miss anything by not reading it. I wouldn’t stop someone from picking it up, but why waste time on this when you have better books to read, eh?
PS: Oscar Wilde appears as a character in this book, but I cannot reveal more without marking this review as a spoiler. Go read the book.