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Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Review

There has never been a more unlikely title for bestselling novel than The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. However, the runaway hit by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows has captivated readers around the globe in spite of the tongue-twister title; the book spent more than 30 weeks on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestsellers' List.
 
The narrative takes place immediately following World War II in both London and the English Channel island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 through the end of the war. The story centers around Juliet Ashton, an author and columnist in her early thirties, and her correspondence with her publisher, friends and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a group of islanders who used a love of books as way to survive the hardships of the German occupation.
 
By itself, the story would have appealed to many readers. What helps turn this book into a publishing mega-hit is that Shaffer and Barrows use a device seldom seen in fiction but used to great effect in books like Helene Hanff's 84, Caring Cross Road and C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters: the entire book consists of letters the characters wrote back and forth to each other.
 
The beauty of the letters-as-novel device is evident for several reasons. It gives the story a flow that lends to reading large chunks at a time (because there are no chapter breaks). It appeals to the voyeur in all of us; who doesn't love reading someone else's mail? And it makes it easy for the reader to forget that while the characters may have been based in part on real people and events, they aren't real people. As soon as we start believing that the characters really existed, the authors have won us over.
 
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is captivating because of its story of perseverance in wartime and the discovery of love in unexpected places; the hardships the islanders endure actually help keep the story from being mere lighthearted fluff. But at its heart, this is a book about books and the role they play in our lives. It shows that you are never too old to fall in love with the written word, and that you can be dramatically impacted by authors bold old and new. Shaffer and Barrows have certainly accomplished this with their own novel, and in doing so opened up a new world to countless readers.

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