"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society"
"The Jane Austen Book Club" meets "84 Charing Cross Road"
If you want to make bookworms like me happy, give us a book about books. Reading them, writing them, selling them, binding them â we are not picky. Have your characters sit around and talk about their favorites; weâll be engrossed for hours.
The book-club book has become a staple of womenâs 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 Iâve enjoyed (âThe Jane Austen Book Clubâ) and more that I forced myself to finish. But Iâve never wanted to join a club as desperately as I did while reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Iâll pass on the refreshments though, thanks.)
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: âElizabeth and Her German Garden.â The potato peel pie part is the result of the culinary creativity necessary when you donât have any flour, sugar, or butter. Itâs 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 societyâs name (who wouldnât 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 BrontĂŤs; to Booker, a Seneca-reading Jewish valet, who survived the war by masquerading as an English lord.
Missing, though, is the groupâs founder, the stalwart Elizabeth, who was arrested and sent to France. Elizabeth, who loved to quote a poem by Matthew Arnold that begins, âIs it so small a thing/ To have enjoyâd the sun,â 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. Sheâs been feeling adrift since the war ended. Her flat was bombed during the Blitz, and sheâs between jobs. During the war, she wrote a humorous newspaper column thatâs been turned into a book called âIzzy Bickerstaff Goes to War.â But she has no idea what to write now.
At first, I was afraid Iâd stumbled into âBridget Jones: The War Yearsâ (especially when Juliet hurls a teapot at a reporter early on). Happily, the novel I was most frequently reminded of was Helene Hanffâs â84, Charing Cross Roadâ â and anything that brings that lovely book to mind is well worth recommending.
Julietâs ready wit is enchanting, as are the discussion of authors from Catullus to Shakespeare. Sometimes, the two even mingle, as when Juliet wrangles a publisherâs address out of a flower delivery boy: âI hope you donât sack him; he seems a nice boy and he really had no alternative â I menaced him with âRemembrance of Things Past.â â
There is the occasional false note. At one point, Juliet is offered enough money for writing one newspaper article for The Times to âkeep her in flowers for a year.â (Sure, maybe if she doles out one dandelion per week.) And itâs hard to believe how little condemnation Elizabeth comes in for when she falls in love with a German doctor.
However, âThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Societyâ 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 âJersey Under the Jackbootâ while stuck at the airport. Her niece, Annie Barrows, is a childrenâs author who helped her aunt finish the novel when Shafferâs health began to decline. Shaffer died earlier this year, and itâs 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.