Read this book, my mum said. It’s really heart-warming, she said.
Heart-warming? Heart-warming?! I started tearing up on about page 50 and cried pretty much continuously until the very end.
It’s not just my mum who had this completely warped reading of it, oh no, the reviews are littered with it too; ‘sheer girlish pleasure;’ ‘warm and witty;’ ‘one to lift even the most cynical of spirits.’
Was I reading a different book to everyone else?
Not that the amount it made me cry was necessarily a bad thing. I quite like a good weepy book every now and then, it just wasn’t what I went into it expecting. And it wasn’t why I picked it off the shelf.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is another epistolary novel, which is fast becoming one of my favourite formats of books. It’s such a sweet, personal way to get into a story. In this particular book the letters centre around Juliet, a journalist living in London writing to her publisher, Sidney and various residents of the tiny island of Guernsey, who tell her about their daily life and their experiences living during World War II.
World War II is usually a topic I avoid at all costs in literature. I studied it at school every year from the ages of 10 to 16 and I still haven’t quite got over it. Like how reading a book for English lessons ruins any enjoyment you might have got from it; studying World War II has destroyed any interest I might have found in that period of history. But the way this book was pitched meant that I didn’t really expect the war to be a prominent feature.
I also, to be honest, had no idea the Channel Islands had even been involved in World War II. Those six years of history lessons never once mentioned them. And in general they do tend to get a bit overlooked in relation to all things British. So maybe it was that seeing the war from a completely different perspective, from people who had to live alongside Nazi soldiers on occupied territory, breathed new life into the topic. Or maybe it was because by the time the war starts to be a prominent theme I was already into the flow of the writing style and hooked on the characters. Or maybe it’s that eight years on I’m finally ready to get back on that horse and take an interest in one of the most defining periods of history. Because I have to admit, I’m starting to reassess the books on my shelves and actively look for World War II fiction.
It was the events that take place during World War II that caused me to sob my way through the book. Seeing the civilian side of it was in a way so much harder to take than the books I have read that tend to focus more on the soldiers and nurses and those who were actively involved. The residents of Guernsey were just stuck living with these atrocities, which were often being carried out by German soldiers who were just as unwilling.
If all this talk of war and misery and death is completely putting you off, don’t let it. Because in amongst the tragedy there are some hugely entertaining characters, Isola especially, and some truly laugh out loud moments.
There’s also a pathetic attempt at a love story tacked on as an afterthought but you can probably tell from my attitude that it’s better we don’t speak of that. After all, it takes up very little time in the grand scheme of things, barely worth mentioning.
The writers of this novel – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – are both American but I never once came across a cultural anachronism in the book. Carry On was also British based but written by an American and I never really relaxed enough into the Britishness to forget that. The need to be British almost felt forced with the unnecessary references to Margaret Thatcher and Britpop whereas for the whole of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society it never even occurred to me that the author was American. So well done on your research, ladies.
But I couldn’t review this book without mentioning the many many similarities it has to 84 Charing Cross Road. A female writer with a modern attitude and witty, slightly sarcastic personality holds a correspondence with some well-meaning, thoroughly British people shortly after the Second World War, which begins with the sharing of books and grows into a long distance friendship? Now where have I heard that before? This book certainly owes a lot to Helene Hanff but fortunately I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society enough that I can forgive the liberties it took with originality. If I’d liked it less I might have started to bandy around words like ‘derivative,’ ‘plagiarism’ and ‘fraud’ but I’ll let them get away with it because if they’re going to copy, at least they copied really really well.