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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

By Elise O'Shaughnessy
Published: Jan 01, 2008
Category: Fiction

I’m not crazy about clubs, whether they’d have me as a member or not. And I don’t like reading about book clubs, knitting circles, or sweet potatoes. So when the unfortunately titled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came in the mail, I might not have cracked the novel, except that Guernsey is an unusual setting — among other distinctions, it was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and its northernmost island was the site of the only concentration camp the Nazis built on British soil — and the editor who sent it is not only brilliant, she’s a pal, and I thought she’d know better.

I was rewarded for my faith in her. Set in 1946, the book looks back at the Nazi occupation; it is very funny and very sad; and I dog-eared three pages, which I almost never do, so I could revisit certain passages. (“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books,” says one character.) I wasn’t going to stop to savor them right away, because I was dying to find out what happened next.

There is a dramatic back story to the book, too. First-time novelist Mary Ann Shaffer, a former librarian, once visited Guernsey and read all the books about it, including one she couldn’t forget — a chronicle of life on the islands in World War II. When she decided to write a novel, that’s the subject she chose. Shaffer fell ill and died after handing in her first draft; her niece, Annie Barrows, author of the children’s series Ivy and Bean, stepped in to finish Shaffer’s work.

It must have been some mild-meld, because the book’s voice is clear as a bell. Or should I say voices? In letters between the characters — another literary device I generally find annoying — you hear from the London-sophisticated heroine, Juliet Ashton; her book publicist; and an American publishing tycoon, who wants to marry Juliet; as well as the Guernsey Islanders who formed the world’s most unlikely book club.

This one-of-a kind story starts with Juliet publishing her first book and wondering what to do next. A providential letter from Guernsey leads to a correspondence about books. Soon other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are writing to Juliet. She’s so taken by their stories about life during the war that she decides to visit the island. But rather than give away more of the plot, I’d like to note something reassuring: The club got started because of six German soldiers and a pig, not because its members were particularly literary.

There is a deft mix of suspense (involving one of the greatest names in English literature), romance, and history, as Julia gets more and more involved with a world quite unlike her own. Shaffer was a World War II buff, with a librarian’s respect for accuracy, so the portrait of life in Nazi-occupied Guernsey is firmly rooted in fact.

This is a story about, by, and for book-lovers. But I’m betting Hollywood will snap it even up before you do. (Cate Blanchett, call your agent.)

— Guest Butler Elise O’Shaughnessy is a Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair.

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