The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; An Instant Classic Waiting for You
by Everett Wilson
January 17, 2011
This book is now two years old, has been praised generously, and reviewed endlessly. I Googled the title, added "reviews," and was rewarded with 102,000 hits.
I did not read any of them; I did not need to. I only wanted to know how many there were. I had already read the book. Now I have read it twice, though I have had it for just over a month. I have always reread my most favorite books because I trust them more than new ones, but I don't believe my second reading has ever been as quick on the heels of the first reading as this one was.
The ostensible reason for the quick reread was that I wanted to write about it for The Partial Observer, but the real reason was that I had enjoyed reading it so much that I wanted the pleasure to continue.
I didn't discover the book; if I had seen it for sale I would have rejected it out of hand for its preposterous title alone. But the book was a Christmas gift to Donna and me from our daughter's family, handed to me from a granddaughter's luggage as she paid us a brief visit in early December. Since her mother, our daughter Ruth, is always on target when she gives a book, I knew I would read it as soon as I could, expecting good things despite the title.
I was wrong about the title anyway. Every word in it is weighty and apt. Anyone who loves the book—and apparently our number is legion—would be hard put to think of a better title, because the title wastes no words telling the reader exactly what the book is about.
I expected good things; I got great things.
On the inside cover of our copy The Sunday Times of London calls it an "epistolary" novel, which is a novel consisting of written correspondence between fictional characters, They are telling us the story as they are writing to each other, limited to the pieces of it they know personally. Since the story takes place in 1946, its characters are still writing and mailing letters to each other as their primary communication when they are apart for more than a few days. .
Twenty-six distinct individuals write these notes and letters. .First, they are letters to and from the close friends of a young Englishwoman, a successful novelist in London. One of her friends is her publisher, who wants to know what she has in mind for her next book. She is even more anxious about it than the publisher, because she has no idea for her next book. Then she gets a letter from a stranger on the Isle of Guernsey, a pig farmer who has in his possession a used copy of Charles Lamb's Selected Essays of Elia with her name and address written inside the cover. He loves the book and wants to read more Charles Lamb, but the Nazi occupation of Guernsey had closed all the bookshops on the island. Could she put him in touch with a London bookseller that would take his order for a book? Then he explains, "Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb."
She gets the book ordered and on its way, but in her letter telling him to expect the book she asks why the Germans cared about the roast pig. Her question opens her circle of correspondence to include many members of the oddly-but-aptly-named Literary Society. Some of their communications are just a few words, some hundreds of words long, to the novelist and between others in the enlarged circle All of them enrich and expand the story line upon line. Reading the book is something like reading a good play without the printed stage directions. The story is in the written dialogue, without a godlike author over-explaining it.
When the epistolary form works as it does in this novel, the reader is glad the author chose it. The novel is an extraordinary work of art—genuine, not contrived, comedy in the midst of tragedy; the survival of ethics when confronted by unspeakable evil; unlikely love that is triumphant whether the lovers live or die.
Read the book. I don't expect you to say that you couldn't put it down. Of course you have to put it down when you are faced with more urgent needs and responsibilities. But I can guarantee that readers like me won't want to put it down, even when they have to.
About the Author:
Everett Wilson has worn out several books by reading them over and over--"Watership Down," "The Years with Ross," "I Didn't Come Here to Argue," "Penny Candy," "The Lord of the Rings" to name a few. He has a feeling that the subject of this column could join them. Moving to Kindle might save a lot of trees!
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