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Review: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society 
Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Allen & Unwin
2018 (originally 2008), 256p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

“To give them hope she must tell their story”

The war is over. Juliet Ashton is grappling with writer’s block when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey – a total stranger living halfway across the Channel, who has come across her name written in a second-hand book.

Juliet begins writing to Dawsey, and in time to everyone in the extraordinary Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The society tell Juliet about life on the island – and the dark years spent under the shadow of German occupation. Drawn into their irresistible world, Juliet sets sail for Guernsey, changing her life – and theirs – forever.

I honestly don’t know how it is that I haven’t read this book until now. I have known of it for a while – maybe not the entire time since it was published but probably at least since 2012 or so. I’ve even borrowed it from my local library on at least one occasion but ended up having to return it before I could read it. I know that many people whose opinions I value and who have very similar tastes to me, have sung this book’s praises. So when it arrived with a pretty new movie tie-in cover to coincide with the Australian release date of the movie, I thought okay, the time is now.

This book is so many things but it’s just such a beautiful story. It’s 1946, the end of World War II and London and the world are still picking up the pieces. Author Juliet Ashton is struggling with her next project. During the war she wrote a series of articles or columns called Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War that resonated with the public and she’s been touring in support of that. An offer from the Times for articles on how literature has helped people is on the table but Juliet isn’t sure of the best path. When a letter makes its way to her from the island of Guernsey from a man named Dawsey Adams, Juliet is intrigued. Dawsey has had one of Julia’s books that she either sold or donated come into his possession and because the island of Guernsey no longer has a bookstore, he writes to ask her for the address of a London bookshop so that he may purchase more books by the same author.

I had no idea about the German occupation of Guernsey in WWII – not only did they take the island but they cut it off from all mainland Europe and British communication. They cut the ocean cable, stopped the mail, confiscated radios. They tried to bluff the population into thinking that London had been obliterated and they took the local people’s livestock to feed their armies, made them grow potatoes and shipped in slaves to build their barracks, often working them to death.

Juliet is drawn into a communication with not only Dawsey Adams, the writer of the original letter, but also the rest of the members of a group he belongs to – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Slowly each of the members write to Juliet to tell them their stories, how the society came to be and why, what their roles were, how the happenings in the war had affected them. They paint such bright, colourful pictures of strength and friendship, even at such a testing time that Juliet has to know more and so she decides to go to Guernsey, meet all the members of the group and hear their stories in person. There’s a story she can tell here, she just needs to figure out the best way.

This is an epistolary novel, so the entire thing is told in letters and telegrams. Firstly between Juliet and the members and then between Juliet and either her editor Sidney or her best friend Sophie, after she goes to Guernsey to hear their stories. Juliet finds herself charmed by not only the island but also the people, so much so that she finds it hard to leave, becoming more and more ensconced in the local community and building friendships and relationships that are like the bonds of family. I love epistolary novels but they can be hard to do successfully without feeling like the letters are a bit forced, in order to give the reader the information they need. But this novel, each of the character’s personalities shines through in their letters to each other and the way in which the story flows is so well done. Nothing feels contrived at all.

Juliet wasn’t the only one charmed. I honestly couldn’t put this book down. The story is compelling – all of the people on Guernsey in the society have such interesting stories and even though the war is over, their journey is not. They are still missing someone that makes their little group complete and Juliet wants to stay in Guernsey until that person is found and brought home. There was so much sadness in each of their stories – people lost, separations, starvation and the threat of death every day. But there was also so much that the occupation had brought the group, funnily enough. The friendship of them all would never have happened without that occupation and the strict rules and the German habit of confiscating everything. And it knit them as close together as people could be. When Juliet arrives there, it’s easy to see how well she fits in also, how quickly she becomes attached to everyone and they to her.

When I finished it on Sunday night, my husband got home from work and I said to him, fancy going to the movies tomorrow? Now we haven’t been to the movies, just us, not seeing something made by Disney/Pixar in 10 years. I counted. The last movie we saw together alone was in 2008 when I was pregnant with our oldest child. But I’d just finished this amazing book and the movie had just opened in Australia days before, it seemed like perfect timing. So the day after I finished the book, we went to see the movie. I was curious how they’d adapt it, given the entire book is people writing letters to each other. Wonderful, descriptive letters admittedly but I need not have worried. There are some changes from the book, there always is. But they were minimal really and the movie kept what I think is the core charm and beauty of the story, the bond between these characters which is so strong it’s almost visible. Honestly, I cannot remember how many times I cried in this movie because there’s a heartbreaking sadness running through it but also because of the incredibly beautiful friendships. The casting is amazing and it just felt like it kept that spirit that the book had. Rarely do I find a book adaptation that I truly love but this one did a fabulous job.

The book is one of my favourites of the year, probably the last few years. I’m so disappointed I didn’t read it sooner. It’s the sort of book I can see myself re-reading a lot. And I will definitely watch the movie again.

9/10 – for both the book and its movie adaptation.

Book #77 of 2018

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