four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
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0

A-The Guernsey LiteraryThis enchanting novel in letters is the posthumous debut of the late Mary Ann Shaffer, a librarian whose niece, children’s author Annie Barrows, helped her finish the manuscript after she fell ill.

The Story: In 1946, Juliet Ashton, a British newspaper columnist whose cheerful wartime articles have been collected into a successful book, is having trouble adjusting to life in postwar London. Under pressure to produce a new best seller, she receives a letter from a stranger on Guernsey, which mentions the Channel Island’s oddly named book group, formed during the German occupation as an alibi for breaking curfew one night. She starts to correspond with the group’s members and, moved by their heartbreaking stories of life under Nazi command, quickly recognizes the potential for a new book. But when Juliet starts to fall in love with one of her new friends, she faces a difficult choice.
Dial Press. 288 pages. $22. ISBN: 0385340990

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"The characters from both Guernsey and London are quirky and singular without become stereotypes—even the Holocaust survivor and the occupying German soldiers. … . Revealing much about the aftermath of World War II in England, the novel is at once an unlikely love story, a portrayal of heroism and survival, and a subtle homage to the bond forged by literature." Nancy Posey

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The worst one can say of the book is that it is a ‘small blameless pleasure,’ in that phrase of Barbara Pym’s, creator of a few such pleasures herself. … It is also a book-lover’s delight, an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary, to libraries personal and public, to bookstores and their owners, customers and contents." Roger K. Miller

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Yvonne Zipp

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"This book won’t change your life, but it will probably enchant you. And sometimes that’s precisely what makes fiction worthwhile. … What makes this novel lovely is its light touch and how effortless the writing seems." Margot Kaminski

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"You could be skeptical about the novel’s improbabilities and its sanitized portrait of book clubs (doesn’t anyone read trashy thrillers?), but you’d be missing the point. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a sweet, sentimental paean to books and those who love them." Wendy Smith

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This little gem is not about a group of women who meet for pie, and it has much more meat to it than the title might suggest. … [The authors have] done a good job bringing a little-known chapter of World War II to life; they tell a slightly bittersweet yet funny story." Janna Fischer

Rocky Mountain News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The novel’s story line is flimsy; Juliet’s romantic endeavors aren’t nearly as interesting as the historical background against which they’re played. And the characters often feel contrived, serving only as a means to relate the authors’ extensive research into the Occupation." Ashley Simpson Shires

Critical Summary

"Traditional without seeming stale, and romantic without being naïve" (San Francisco Chronicle), this epistolary novel, based on Mary Ann Shaffer’s painstaking, lifelong research, is a homage to booklovers and a nostalgic portrayal of an era. As her quirky, loveable characters cite the works of Shakespeare, Austen, and the Brontës, Shaffer subtly weaves those writers’ themes into her own narrative. However, it is the tragic stories of life under Nazi occupation that animate the novel and give it its urgency; furthermore, the novel explores the darker side of human nature without becoming maudlin. The Rocky Mountain News criticized the novel’s lighthearted tone and characterizations, but most critics agreed that, with its humor and optimism, Guernsey "affirms the power of books to nourish people during hard times" (Washington Post).

Cited by the Critics

84, Charing Cross Road | Helene Hanff (1970): In this humorous and touching epistolary portrait of a friendship, New York City writer Helene Hanff corresponds with London bookseller Frank Doel from 1949 until his death in 1969; through letters, they share news, Christmas gifts, and a love of literature.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. What was it like to read a novel composed entirely of letters? What do letters offer that no other form of writing (not even emails) can convey?

2. What makes Sidney and Sophie ideal friends for Juliet? What common ground do they share? Who has been a similar advocate in your life?

3. Dawsey first wrote to Juliet because books, on Charles Lamb or otherwise, were so difficult to obtain on Guernsey in the aftermath of the war. What differences did you note between bookselling in the novel and bookselling in your world? What makes book lovers unique, across all generations?

4. What were your first impressions of Dawsey? How was he different from the other men Juliet had known?

5. Discuss the poets, novelists, biographers, and other writers who capture the hearts of the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What does a reader’s taste in books say about his or her personality? Whose lives were changed the most by membership in the society?

6. Juliet occasionally receives mean-spirited correspondence from strangers, accusing both Elizabeth and Juliet of being immoral. What accounts for their judgmental ways?

7. In what ways were Juliet and Elizabeth kindred spirits? What did Elizabeth’s spontaneous invention of the society, as well as her brave final act, say about her approach to life?

8. Numerous Guernsey residents give Juliet access to their private memories of the occupation. Which voices were most memorable for you? What was the effect of reading a variety of responses to a shared tragedy?

9. Kit and Juliet complete each other in many ways. What did they need from each other? What qualities make Juliet an unconventional, excellent mother?

10. How did Remy’s presence enhance the lives of those on Guernsey? Through her survival, what recollections, hopes, and lessons also survived?

11. Juliet rejects marriage proposals from a man who is a stereotypical “great catch.” How would you have handled Juliet’s romantic entanglement? What truly makes someone a “great catch”?

12. What was the effect of reading a novel about an author’s experiences with writing, editing, and getting published? Did this enhance the book’s realism, though Juliet’s experience is a bit different from that of debut novelist Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, children’s book author Annie Barrows?

13. What historical facts about life in England during World War II were you especially surprised to discover? What traits, such as remarkable stamina, are captured in a detail such as potato peel pie? In what ways does fiction provide a means for more fully understanding a non-fiction truth?

14. Which of the members of the Society is your favorite? Whose literary opinions are most like your own?

15. Do you agree with Isola that “reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones”?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Dial Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.