Writers write books. They also write about books—reviews, literary analysis, how-to manuals. And, of course, fiction.
Fiction about books often deal with our relationship to books or what they mean to us. The book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, is one such novel.
Set shortly after World War II, Juliet Ashton, a journalist living in London, writes articles for a local publication. Her publisher compiles these essays into a book that sells quite well.
But Juliet can’t rest on her laurels. She must write another book, and needs inspiration. An unexpected and fortuitous letter from Dawsey Adams, a stranger from Guernsey―one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy—turns out to be her path to inspiration.
Finding her name and her old address as the former owner of a second-hand book he now owns, he writes to ask whether she could tell him where to get another book by the book’s author. Thus begins an exchange of letters between them, and later, between her and other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to which Dawsey belongs.
Juliet learns about life on Guernsey, and the unlikely beginning of the Society. During WWII, several of its members were caught violating curfew by the German occupiers of the island. The Guernseyites’ excuse? They were talking about books and lost track of time.
It’s a lie. The truth would have gotten them into a great deal of trouble with the Germans. But to readers, that truth makes them human and even endearing.
The lie works beyond saving them that night. They continue to meet to eat together. And they talk about books. In time, they get to know each other better, becoming a protective, closely-knit group.
Fascinated by both the island and the members of the Society, Juliet visits the island, finds her place among its members, takes care of a motherless child, and realizes she loves Dawsey. She stays.
I think what makes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society such a delightful read is captured quite well in this passage from Arundathi Roy’s Man Booker prize winning The God of Small Things:
Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. … That is their mystery and their magic.
I actually saw the film (same title) based on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society before I read the book. Seldom does a film captivate me more than the book does, but this is one instance when I found the film more affecting than the book. I’m not sure exactly why.
It is to the film’s credit that it remains quite faithful to the narrative of the book, despite some changes in characters, the most glaring of which is a French woman who was struck out of the film. She is, to Juliet, her rival for Dawsey’s affection. The choice of actors and actresses might have also increased the appeal of the film.
I like this epistolary book. Told entirely through an exchange of letters, the novel is successful in breathing life and personality into the characters. Letters are intimate. They can convey some very private truths you could not access from dialogue and actions. The letters exchanged among the book’s characters are quite engaging, realistic, and sometimes funny. They’re at the core of the book’s charms.
The film relies on the more traditional storytelling methods of period cinema. Film, by its very nature, is visual. It demands vibrant and dynamic scenes which, in turn, require transforming the letters into atmospheric settings and lively actions. Otherwise, we might have been shown characters who are writing each other, their letters flying back and forth. Not a satisfying set of visuals.
The appeal and success of the book has spawned similar novels about our love for books. One I listened to recently suffers from having come after The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Jane Austen Society, about Jane Austen lovers who band together to try to save a house she once lived in, doesn’t quite come up to the standards set by the Shaffer and Barrows novel. Its many characters are not as entrancing and the plot doesn’t flow as naturally. The happy couplings, which preserve Jane Austen’s approach to endings, feel forced.
I’m likely to reread The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or watch the film based on it. But I have no desire to pick up The Jane Austen Society again, despite my love for Jane Austen’s books.