Classic review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
"The Jane Austen Book Club" meets "84 Charing Cross Road."
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on on July 28, 2008.] If you want to make bookworms like me happy, give us a book about books. Reading them, writing them, selling them, binding them – we are not picky. Have your characters sit around and talk about their favorites; we’ll be engrossed for hours.Skip to next paragraph
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The book-club book has become a staple of women’s fiction (can I just mention how much I loathe that term?) probably because publishers figure book clubs are likely to buy lots of copies. There have been some I’ve enjoyed (“The Jane Austen Book Club”) and more that I forced myself to finish. But I’ve never wanted to join a club as desperately as I did while reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (I’ll pass on the refreshments though, thanks.)
Treated as an alibi, the society actually began life as a pig roast. Islanders were no longer allowed meat, but a local woman managed to hide a pig from the German soldiers and invited her neighbors to share. Caught out after curfew, one of the conspirators claimed that they were a book club who had been so engrossed that they lost track of time.
The ruse worked. The alleged book: “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” The potato peel pie part is the result of the culinary creativity necessary when you don’t have any flour, sugar, or butter. It’s made of mashed potatoes for the filling, with strained beets for sweetener and peels for the crust.
In 1946, journalist Juliet Ashton stumbles across the group when she receives a letter from member Dawsey Adams, who found her name in the flyleaf of selected writings of Charles Lamb, and wants to know if she can recommend any more books by the author.
Charmed by the society’s name (who wouldn’t be?), she writes back asking for the history of the group and enclosing another book by Lamb. A gaggle of Guernseyites respond, from herbalist Isola, who loves the Brontës; to Booker, a Seneca-reading Jewish valet, who survived the war by masquerading as an English lord.
Missing, though, is the group’s founder, the stalwart Elizabeth, who was arrested and sent to France. Elizabeth, who loved to quote a poem by Matthew Arnold that begins, “Is it so small a thing/ To have enjoy’d the sun,” left behind a baby girl the rest of the Society is raising.