Classic review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

"The Jane Austen Book Club" meets "84 Charing Cross Road."

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows The Dial Press 274 pp. $22

[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.

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.)

The debut novel by the late Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is written as a series of letters that tells the history of a small group of Channel Islanders during five years of Nazi occupation.

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.

As the letters fly back and forth over the Channel, Juliet becomes more and more invested in the Society and almost as desperate as they are to learn what happened to Elizabeth. She’s been feeling adrift since the war ended. Her flat was bombed during the Blitz, and she’s between jobs. During the war, she wrote a humorous newspaper column that’s been turned into a book called “Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War.” But she has no idea what to write now.

At first, I was afraid I’d stumbled into “Bridget Jones: The War Years” (especially when Juliet hurls a teapot at a reporter early on). Happily, the novel I was most frequently reminded of was Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road” – and anything that brings that lovely book to mind is well worth recommending.

Juliet’s ready wit is enchanting, as are the discussion of authors from Catullus to Shakespeare. Sometimes, the two even mingle, as when Juliet wrangles a publisher’s address out of a flower delivery boy: “I hope you don’t sack him; he seems a nice boy and he really had no alternative – I menaced him with ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ ”

There is the occasional false note. At one point, Juliet is offered enough money for writing one newspaper article for The Times to “keep her in flowers for a year.” (Sure, maybe if she doles out one dandelion per week.) And it’s hard to believe how little condemnation Elizabeth comes in for when she falls in love with a German doctor.

However, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is a labor of love, and it shows on almost every page. According to her biography, Mary Ann Shaffer became interested in the occupation of the Channel Islands in 1976, when she was stranded on a fogbound Guernsey and read “Jersey Under the Jackboot” while stuck at the airport. Her niece, Annie Barrows, is a children’s author who helped her aunt finish the novel when Shaffer’s health began to decline. Shaffer died earlier this year, and it’s sad to think that someone who apparently treasured books so much will never see her own on a bookstore shelf.

But readers will be grateful it found its way there, nonetheless.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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