Monday, July 8, 2013

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrow

Skeptic scale: ♥♥♥♥

What a lovely little book. I call it "little" only  because it made me feel like I was in a cozy little world containing just me and the 15 odd characters from the book writing each other letters and chatting over our knitting.

The story is revealed through letters and telegrams to and from the "narrator", the journalist and author, Juliet Ashton. There are a few bits of correspondence between other characters in the book talking directly to one another, but mainly the story is about how Juliet learns of the experience of the inhabitants of the Channel Islands during German Occupation of the islands during WWII. She grows to love the people with whom she corresponds and even moves there to immerse herself in the Guernsey experience.

There were several things I thought were a little odd about the book:
1) The fact that all the letters are written in the same "voice" - the pig farmer's letter sound almost exactly like those Juliet writes, and those bear strong resemblance to the letters written by the Juliet's publisher.

2) Juliet ends up adopting a 4 year old child after knowing her for what seems like a matter of months. Not sure how that would even come to pass...

3) Spoiler! The main "romance" happens between Juliet and a pig farmer. But apart from their initial correspondence where they talk about poets, and then their casual talks about the history of the Guernsey and books, they don't really seem to really know a whole lot about each other.
That's the trouble with this "letter and note" format - everything we know about the characters is confined to these snippets and anecdotes - which can get frustrating if you want to get a real sense of character and motivation. End of spoiler.

4) I was expecting a lot more trauma and angst in the characters. I mean, these people just 
spent a few rather horrific years being imprisoned in their own home and treated like slaves, they know close friends who have been brutalized by the Nazi campaign. But everyone seems to have suffered nothing more lasting that a general sense of sadness and melancholy. There are a couple characters who are worse affected, but those seems like outliers rather than the norm.

5) The characters all seem a bit "caricatur-ish" - like there a meddlesome old woman, a stoic and stalwart farmer, a drunk, a termagant spinster who hates "fun", a crass and confident American, a lovely and appealing main character who seems to be universally adored and who effortlessly attracts men wherever she goes. And so on...

6) There is reference to this one "special" character from the island - Elizabeth - who is painted as some sort of saintly Madonna that I found to be rather a stretch. I think we are supposed to feel EXTRA sad about how she was sent to a Nazi prison camp because she was such a wonderful person. But I thought she was a little too perfect to be a believable character and you almost feel like it was unnecessary to show her as such. It would have been sad enough that she was sent to a camp if she were just a regular person - she didn't need to be a saint for me to feel bad.

Ultimately though, these things didn't change the fact that I did enjoy reading this book. The writing was witty and easy to digest and despite some of my criticisms above, I did begin to care for the characters.

What I liked:
1) What I enjoyed most of all was the writing. There were some wonderful, easy-on-the-ear snippets and clever little turns of phrase that had me smiling often.

2) I didn't know much about the Channel Islands and the islanders' experience during WWII so I learned something new about the war and it gives one good perspective of how far reaching the effects of that horrible time were.

3) I thought the love story (although a little unbelievable) was really sweet.

4) I liked the contained little universe created by the letter writers - it makes you feel like you're on an island yourself, far away from everything "real", like bombed out buildings or concentration camps. 

Friendly little quotes that I highlighted while I was reading: 
"That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book , and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment"

"I much prefer whining to counting my blessings"

"I can imagine their entire lives from a glimpse of a bookshelves, or desks, or lit candles, or bright sofa cushions."

(Of bookshop owners) "...clever customers ask for a recommendation...whereupon we frog-march them over to a particular volume and command them to read it."

 (Of a character's trophy shelf) "There were statues for everything a man could jump over, either by himself or on a horse."

" a token of our long friendship, you do not need to comment on this story - not ever. In fact, I'd far prefer it if you didn't."

(On the efforts of a particularly persistent suitor) "So far, his blandishments are entirely floral"

"'Life goes on.' What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn't. It's death that goes on; Ian is dead now and will be dead tomorrow and next year and forever."

"The Mind will make friends with any thing."

"I sat; arms crossed, hands tucked under my armpits, glaring like a molting eagle, looking around for someone to hate."

"Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb." Quote from Roman philosopher Seneca

"[She] believes in breaking the ice by stomping on it."

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