Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

For me, a good book is a luxury, something to be savored, something that in its own right feels like a vacation.  This is one of those books, one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

I wasn’t going to pick this up. (And I’m late doing so. It’s been out for four years.) The title (Potato Peel Pie Society?) made me think this was one of those southern, Ya-Ya Sisterhood kind of books, and for some reason, I’m not a lover of southern fiction. When my sister-in-law recommended it as this wonderful book written all in letters, I looked at it again, and realized, DUH… it takes place on the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel, during and after World War II.  Sign me up!  

During the war, London writer Juliet Ashton wrote a series of lighthearted, humorous articles published in the hope of keeping people’s spirits up. But she doesn’t want to do that kind of writing anymore.  And she has no idea what to write next.

At least, not until one of her own books ends up in the hands of a Guernsey pig farmer, and he writes to her looking for more information. Thus begins a charming, moving correspondence about the realities of life on Guernsey during the war, under German occupation.

The entire book is in letters: letters between Juliet and her good friend and editor, guernseybook3Sidney; letters between Juliet and her best friend, who is also Sidney’s sister; letters between Juliet and the Guernsey farmer, and every other member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The Guernsey Literary Society, it turns out, was formed one night out of sheer necessity. Sneaking home after curfew following an illicit pig roast, caught by the Germans, one of the islanders comes up with the idea as a means of getting them out of trouble. But then they are required to follow through–which leads to readings of Bronte, Shakespeare, ancient Romans, romantic poetry, and Austen (yes, Austen!) by readers who may not have picked up a book in years. (The potato peel pies came about because of rationing.)

This is a book about reading and writing, about loving books, and about how books can sustain, entertain, and transform readers.  It’s a love story, too, and like so many good love stories, there’s a triangle with one good guy and one not-so-good guy, and I won’t spoil the ending here. (One of them happens to be dashing, handsome, and rich. One of them is a pig farmer.)  It’s a story about WWII, the fascinating story of Guernsey’s German occupation, about living in close proximity to one’s enemy, about the nature of enemies, about cruelty and humanity in the midst of war. Because it’s about war, it’s also about great loss.  And it’s about the nature of a mother’s love, and the things that give a life meaning and value.

One of my favorite things, of course, is when islander Isola Pribby discovers Jane Austen and compares her to Bronte:

Why hadn’t she known there were better love stories around? Stories not riddled with ill-adjusted men, anguish, death, and graveyards?

I was captivated.  If you’re looking for a good summer read, read this.