‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer

Guernsey

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 243 pages; 2008.

It’s got a lovely cover, a great sounding name and everyone seems to be raving about it. So what’s not to like about Mary Ann Schaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, quite a lot.

The book is composed entirely of letters between a successful newspaper columnist, Juliet Ashton, and a vast array of characters including her literary agent, her best friend and members of a literary society on the Channel Island of Guernsey.

It’s 1946 and the Guernsey islanders are trying to put their lives back into order after several years of German Occupation. London-based Juliet, who spent the war years writing a column for the Spectator under a non-de-plume, has been commissioned by The Times to write an article — under her own name — for its literary supplement about “the practical, moral and philosophical value of reading”.

When, by chance, she receives a letter from one of the founding members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society she asks him whether members of the society would mind being interviewed for the article. A fierce onslaught of letters ensues, each member keen to tell their story, not only about their love of books and reading, but also about what life was like during the war, cut off from the rest of the world.

Obviously, Juliet’s interest is piqued, and she abandons her suitor, a debonair American publisher who is keen to marry her, and visits the island to find out more. Here, living among the islanders — a mish mash of terribly twee characters, it has to be said — she hopes to find a new subject that she can write about for a new book.

When Juliet receives a letter from her publisher about her lack of writerly inspiration I laughed at the
irony: this was a letter that should have been sent to Mary Ann Schaffer, the author of
the book.

I’ve read your chapters several times, and you’re right — they won’t
do. Strings of anecdotes don’t make a book. Juliet, your book needs a
centre. I don’t mean more interviews. I mean one person’s voice to tell
what was happening all around her. As written now, the facts, as
interesting as they are, seem like randomly scattered shots.

I won’t go so far as to describe The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as dire, but I found it particularly tiresome and incredibly patronising. I don’t appreciate having my intelligence insulted on every second page, as if I have never heard of the Second World War and the terrible deprivations and conditions that so many people were forced to endure. I know that children were airlifted to rural Britain, I know that people were sent to concentration camps, I know that German soldiers were brutes, I know that there were food shortages, I know that London was bombed. The author, having discovered all this in a book called Jersey Under the Jack-Boot in 1976, seems intent on ramming this down her reader’s throats, as if all of us have been living in a dark cave for the past half-a-century and failed to realise the war happened at all.

Aside from the main character Juliet, who is perky and feisty and strong, I personally didn’t care for any of the remaining cast of often poorly drawn, cliched characters, many of whom seemed overtly American as if they were picked up from the rural mid-west and dumped in the English Channel without anyone bothering to change their cultural makeup. (Tellingly, in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author’s niece thanks the publishers for ridding the Americanisms from her aunt’s manuscript otherwise “British characters would be wearing pants, driving wagons and eating candy”. If the author can’t get the basic language right, what hope is there of ensuring that the subtle nuances of setting, context and character are authentically British?)

There’s no narrative drive, propelling the reader to keep turning the pages, unless, of course, you’re an incurable romantic who wishes to know which man Juliet ends up falling in love with. But even so, that narrative thread is so over-worked and boringly predictable, it’s rendered null and void, at least as far as I was concerned.

Overall, as much as I tried to like this novel, I could not. I particularly hated the “aren’t-we-clever-mentioning-classic-authors-and-our-love-of-books” throughout trick, as if this was some kind of short-hand way of winning my literary approval. It wasn’t.

This is a poorly written and poorly constructed book. In fact, at the risk of offending so many thousands of people across the world who loved it, I can best describe The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in two words: deeply mediocre.

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16 thoughts on “‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer

  1. I had to come back to see if you finished it.
    Nice to see an honest review, I enjoyed reading it. The book certainly had its flaws. I suspect many of us forgave them too easily because we’re sentimental about some subjects.

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  2. Yours is perhaps the first negative review of this book I’ve seen. But that’s alright, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. Although I don’t necessarily agree with you, I think you had some downright valid reasons for not liking this book.

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  3. The lack of narrative (I flipped through the book at the bookstore) makes me have second doubt about it. The exchange of letters, however, makes me curious about reading it.

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  4. Other blogs appear to be raving about it, but I think I find your review to be a bit more believable. It sounds like a rather pedantic exploration of WWII. I’ve read similar fare before.

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  5. Often it’s the negative reviews which are more enlightening – and tell us more about whether we would like a book – than the positive ones. I can’t pretend I was thinking of reading this one anyway, but it’s always good to see a bit of varied opinion!

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  6. It is interesting to see why someone doesn’t like a book that nearly everyone else has loved. Yours is the first really negative review I have seen of this book, but I guess that not every book can be the right book for every person.

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  7. Good for you for managing to finish it, and thanks for taking the time to write such an honest review. Obviously I won’t be reading this twaddle; I already suspected the book was overrated fluff, but I always appreciate affirmation, especially when it comes from someone whose opinion I value.
    Now go read something really good to cleanse your potato brain!

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  8. I had a sneaking suspicion you wouldn’t like this one so I didn’t mention it to you when I read it a month or so ago! I too have read books that have annoyed me from the beginning and as I cotinue to read them they get on “my goat” and I just hate them more and more … and then I stop reading them. Maybe, you should have abandoned it earlier … just thinking aloud 🙂 Anyway, I did rather enjoy this book – but I was measurably “in the mood” for it in that I wanted a light read with a bit of info about something I knew absolutely nothing about (not WWII – I read a lot about that but about Guernsey and the occupation there). I liked the Juliet character but found her relationship with the “wealthy American” annoying and predictable. I found the epistolary format likable too. But if I am hearing you correctly I should have read Jersey Under the Jack Boot instead? 🙂

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  9. I would shelve this book right next to “Tuesdays with Morrie” or “The Bridges of Madison County”. Popular and puerile, useful as an emetic if nothing else.

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  10. I wonder why it was marketed in the US as by two authors compared to just one…
    Anyways, thanks for the honest review. I just finished the book and saw quite a few of the same problems as you, especially how the characters’ language didn’t fit with the time or the place. It was something that really bother me.

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  11. Our book club thoroughly enjoyed this book and found some interesting history they knew nothing about. The length was a pleasing change from some other tomes we have encountered that have had us struggling to enjoy. For those who knew nothing of the occupation of the Channel Isles during WW11 they were enlightened and went searching for more history of the time. Reading should be for entertainment and on occasions education but never a chore!

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  12. Wow! I found your most derisive paragraph to be incredibly patronizing. Given that you have already heard of WWII, concentration camps, occupation, slave labor, et al., I recommend you steer clear of other “particularly tiresome and incredibly patronising” books that touch upon such themes about which you already know everything. For example, steer clear of Catch-22; Mila 18; The Diary of Anne Frank…to name just three.

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