In The Spotlight: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There several different ways in which an author can tell a story. One of those ways is by using letters, cables, and, more recently, email. That approach shares a lot of character development without a lot of narrative detail. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Juliet Ashton is a writer in 1946 London. She’s gotten some notice and had some success, and she and her publisher, Sidney Stark, want to take advantage of that and move on to the next book. But it’s not making much progress. Then, she gets a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams, who lives on Guernsey. He has a copy of a book that she once owned, a book of Charles Lamb’s essays. Dawsey is a fan of Lamb’s work, and wants to read more of it. Since there are no more bookshops on Guernsey, Dawsey wants the name of a London bookseller where he might find more of Lamb’s work. Juliet writes back to Dawsey, and sends him a book by Lamb, and the two begin a correspondence.

Through those letters, Juliet learns a few things about the German occupation of Guernsey, and some things about what Dawsey calls the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What she hears intrigues her, and she decides to write a magazine article about it. Dawsey likes the idea and agrees to have some of the other society members write, too. Little by little, Juliet forms what you might call pen-pal relationships with those members. As she does, she sees that there are some fascinating stories to be told. She also feels a very close bond to her Guernsey friends, although they’ve never met in person. So, she decides to visit Guernsey herself.

When she gets to Guernsey, Juliet finds that there is a great deal of interesting history, and a network of relationships among the people who live there. And, as she gets to know those people better, she uncovers some intriguing stories and secrets. And she finds herself especially drawn to the character of Elizabeth McKenna, who was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, leaving her daughter, Kit, behind. Elizabeth’s story becomes a sort of central focus as Juliet slowly discovers how the society has bound the people of Guernsey together through some awful times.

This isn’t a crime novel as such, although there are crimes committed in it. But there are some secrets and mysteries to uncover; and, in that sense, Juliet searches for the truth, just as sleuths do. And as she learns more, so do readers.

One of the most important elements in the novel is the group of society members. Each has a different character, and each has flaws and strengths. But they have in common a love of books and reading that has sustained them. And they are loyal to each other. The bonds among the members are clear throughout the novel. Although Juliet is, especially at first, an outsider, the society members are not portrayed as quaint, eccentric, or worse. Rather, Juliet sees them as fellow bibliophiles, and develops friendships with them.

That love of books is woven through the novel. Readers who enjoy mentions of books, authors, and so on will appreciate that. There’s even a mention of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.

Much of the novel’s focus is on Guernsey, and post-war life on that island is portrayed in some detail. There are still wartime shortages, and most of the animals that used to live on the island are gone, killed for food during the war. But there is a sense of hope as the residents begin to get things they haven’t had in a long time. And all of the residents love the island’s natural beauty. It’s a unique lifestyle, and it’s depicted clearly.

As Juliet learns about the island’s history, especially the German occupation, readers get a sense of what those years were like. There are several descriptions of some of the things that happened to the residents. For instance, there were strict curfews enforced, and those who didn’t abide by them were arrested and could be sent to a prison camp. The Germans commandeered food and supplies, leaving the residents with nearly nothing. Other things happened as well. Needless to say, most of the residents have very little good to say about the Germans. And parts of the story are quite dark, as we learn more about the occupation.

That said, though, a few of the residents also tell stories of compassion, and not all of the Germans are portrayed as ‘bad guys.’ There are stories of courage, too, in the face of the war. And there’s some wit to lighten the story.

The story is told through letters and cables, through which we get to know the characters’ personalities. We also learn the backstories of several of the characters as they’re referred to in the letters. Readers who prefer a strictly chronological telling of events will notice this.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of a small island, the people who live there, and the writer who becomes part of their group. It tells the history of Guernsey during a dark part of its history, and it explores the bonds that keep people together during terrible times. But what’s your view? Have you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 4 February/Tuesday, 5 February – Arab Jazz – Karim Miské

Monday, 11 February/Tuesday, 12 February – Only the Innocent – Rachel Abbott

Monday, 18 February/Tuesday, 19 February – The Blue Hour – Alonso Cueto


Filed under Annie Barrows, Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

15 responses to “In The Spotlight: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

  1. I loved this book mostly because it does such a great job of conveying a love of books and reading. The story is beautifully told, so even if you are not into promoting reading, the writing is worth the time.

    • I like the focus on the love of books and reading, too, Alice. It’s one of the real appeals of this novel. I agree with you about the writing style. It’s descriptive, lively, and engaging, in my opinion.

  2. Oh what a novel to feature – yes I have read this one. As you know I live on the sister (and larger) Channel Island Jersey and the history of the occupation is very important here with lots of the evidence still visible today in the form of walls and lookout posts etc. Certainly from the stories I’ve heard and those I’ve read about, the book paints an accurate picture of life at that time and so of course this coupled with the love of literature made it a sure fire winner as far as I was concerned.

    • I remember your excellent review of the novel, Cleo. And I’m not surprised at all that you loved it as much as you did. It really does bring Channel Islands life alive, doesn’t it? And, yes, it expresses very clearly, I think, what it was like to live under occupation. I’m not at all surprised that those years are still an important part of life on the Channel Islands and I’m sure the museum, the walls, and so on are very moving to see. The novel brings all of that to the human level, too, which I think makes it all the more real.

  3. Col

    I did see a trailer for the film of this one last year and to be honest it didn’t hold much appeal for me. You do a good job of selling the book, and in truth I’d probably enjoy it if I read it, but there’s plenty others things I’d rather read in preference.

    • No book (or film!) is for everyone, Col. And in truth, I wouldn’t think first of you when thinking of people who’d especially enjoy this one. Still, it’s a good portrait of life on the Channel Islands, especially during and just after the occupation. If you ever do decide to branch out a bit and try it, I hope you’ll like it.

  4. Margot: I loved this book when I read it almost 10 years ago. The letters were so vivid. Having grown up on a farm near a small village I thought the letters reflected the strong sense of community in many rural areas.

    Thinking about the book now I think of how bloggers around the world have a small virtual community where we communicate by electronic messages, comments and emails. The letters posted back and forth in the book are different only in the method of transport.

    I value my participation in the crime fiction blogging community.

    • I value mine, too, Bill, and you’re right; there really is a strong community among bloggers. I think we’re loyal to each other in the same way that these characters are, bound by our love of books, as they are. For us, it’s electronic, but it’s not really different otherwise.

      Those letters are really vivid, aren’t they? They make an effective vehicle for sharing the story, and it’s clear how that rural community is united.

  5. I’m glad you put the spotlight on this book as it is one that I kept hearing about on blogs some years ago and I never got round to getting a copy. To be honest I was rather put off by all the hype it got and the title didn’t attract me at all. I thought it sounded too gimmicky. So it’s good to read your description – which has made me think I’ll see if my library has a copy.

    • Thanks, Margaret – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I didn’t read it when it first came out, either; and, like you, I wondered about the hype. Now that the dust has settled, so to speak, if you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Margot, I have not read the book though my wife and I enjoyed the film adaptation (Netflix) starring English actress Lily James as Juliet Ashton. I liked the juxtaposition of the free-spirited world of writers, books and letters against the cruel backdrop of the German occupation during WWII.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the film, Prashant. And you make a really interesting point about that juxtaposition. I hadn’t thought about that when I was writing this post, but it’s a well-taken point. I definitely see it.

  7. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out who’s In The Spotlight: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’, authors of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society from this post on the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

  8. tracybham

    I enjoyed this post, Margot. I recently purchased this book … but have not read it yet. I did not realize it was published over 10 years ago. How fast time passes.

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