A First Meeting with "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society"
“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”
-The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer
Ah, dear Guernsey! It has been little over a year since I first saw Netflix's truly marvelous film adaptation of the beloved novel, and since then I have cited it as being in my top three all-time favorite films. It's one of those rarer cases in which I saw the film before reading the book, but at last, early this month I finally set to reading Mary Ann Schaffer's best-selling Guernsey novel—and you can rest assured I absolutely loved it.
Disclaimer: this review contains spoilers!
Written entirely in epistolary format, The Guernsey Literary (and so on) Society follows authoress Juliet Ashton in the aftermath of World War II—but the entire story comes out of the fact that a (very handsome and incredibly endearing) potato farmer on Guernsey Island came to own a copy of one of her old books with her address written in, and wrote to her, establishing a pen-pal relationship—and a subsequent pen-pal relationship between Juliet and more than a dozen Guernsey citizens involved in the eponymous "Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society."
Given my love for the film going into this, reading about these characters whom I already adored and being able to learn so much more about them was the biggest treat with this book. Dear Juliet was even wittier and warmer than I knew, and being able to hear about her life experiences, her broken engagement, her frustration with searching for love and meaning in life now that the war had ended was so rewarding. It felt like I was getting to know dear old friends a little better with every page.
One of the greatest triumphs of the book is the voice given to each individual character, which I realized early on could only have ever been possible through the epistolary format. Being able to hear one story through the eyes and words of a dozen people make that story incredibly richer. Everyone has a different take—saw different things—faced different hardships through the German occupation. But what really ties everyone's story together is the bond they all shared with Elizabeth McKenna, a fiercely courageous and compassionate young woman whom Juliet never actually meets, and yet whose life is endlessly impacted by through the memory of her.
Elizabeth was perhaps the most fascinating of all the many endearing characters. Her impact on the book is ghost-like and powerful, as we eventually find out that she had died long before the correspondence between Juliet and the Guernsey islanders began, and it's her memory that has lived on through those she's touched. Elizabeth was unfailingly generous, seeking to help and comfort others, always fighting for what was right and seeing the grey areas nobody else did, in which the war and the fight couldn't be black and white, but full of perspectives and stories that nobody else dared to think of. She rescued a slave worker, actually fell in love with a good-hearted German, looked after anyone in need—and yet it struck me that so many of her good deeds were done in secret, known only to those at the receiving ends of her kindness, though so many judged her for what they did see and know of: her child born out of wedlock.
Juliet's fascination for Elizabeth mirrors the reader's own, I found. We were seeing and feeling so much of what Juliet was, because she wasn't any wiser about her pen pals than we were. All she receives is their letters for the first half of the book, and we're left to imagine and guess as much as Juliet can about the deeper backgrounds of these characters. It feels intensely rewarding when she finally makes her voyage to Guernsey to meet her newfound friends of the Literary Society, as it gives not only her, but us, the chance to "meet" them properly for the first time.
I'd heard from so many readers that the real gem of Guernsey is that it's a book written for book lovers. The characters themselves are united by a love of books, and just as Juliet feels so understood by Dawsey, Isola, and the members of the Society, we also can't help but feel the same. Juliet breaking her engagement because her one-time fiancé emptied her bookshelves, packed up her books, and replaced her shelves with his athletic trophies was so amusing, because I'm quite sure nobody but a reader would commiserate and understand her. I just know I would have reacted the same way Juliet did!! The many references to the Brontës, Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Miss Marple, Shakespeare, and so many other beloved books and authors, was so enjoyable.
And oh, how I adored these character better than ever when Juliet finally met them!! Dear Dawsey, who is incredibly endearing, gentle, and kind—and the Brontë-loving Isola Pribby, Eben, Mrs. Maugery—and so many others, all came to feel like my own friends. They're all richly warm, well-rounded characters with voices of their own.
The only complaint I have with this wonderful book is it's ending, actually. Somewhere in the last eighth or so of the book, there seemed to me to be a severely conspicuous shift in the writing style—and the characters, notably Juliet, began to act and behave so differently. I realized this was, in all probability, where Annie Burrows' writing came into finishing her aunt's work. It's a treacherous slope to have a different author finish another's book, and this proved to be the case with Guernsey. Our beloved Juliet was quite suddenly jealous and petty, imagining Dawsey was in love with the severely war-traumatized Remy. Isola actually sneaks into Dawsey's house to look through his things for the purpose of figuring out who he loves—which seemed ridiculous, out of character, and not to mention rather rude! Worse still, she discovers under his bed a token box full of Juliet's things—which I can't possibly imagine Dawsey ever having. Quite honestly, I could imagine a woman keeping a sentimental box of a lover's tokens, but there's no way I could believe this of a man, even in fiction. It seemed to me like Annie Burrows was in a rush to wrap up Mary Ann Schaffer's work and didn't know how else to reveal that Dawsey loved Juliet, which was a shame, as it really downplayed the romance for me and made this incredible story end a bit oddly and unrealistically.
If Schaffer's health had enabled her to finish this marvelous book herself, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would have been nothing short of perfect to me. As it sadly was not the case, I'm still very pleased to give this charming, poignant book 4.5 stars. I was left thinking about this story for a while afterward, and having just rewatched the film again, my love and appreciation for it has only grown. There is so much I really wish could have been put in the film, but as it is, differences included, the book and the adaptation are both incredibly beautiful in their own right. After hearing from so many readers that Guernsey is a lifelong-favorite book, I'm so glad to have finally read it and understand now why it is so beloved.
Are you a fan of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and especially to see if you felt the same way about the two-author dynamic, or otherwise. You can leave a comment below if you fancy, or send me a direct message from the 'About' page to get connected!
Thanks for reading with me! :)
Until next time,
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