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
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.