Because I had just finished reading a fabulous book I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to do this one justice. (The first few books after a really good one can seem a little bland.) Well, I needn’t have worried. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel was as charming and delightful as fellow book bloggers said it would be.
The chatty correspondence between writer Juliet Ashton and the members of the literary society on Guernsey Island draws the reader effortlessly into their lives. The story takes place during the years after WWII and though it recalls a few events that took place during the war, it centers on how half a dozen inhabitants of the island are putting their lives back together. Sounds somber, but it isn’t!
Lovers of literature and WWII history get a double whammy with Guernsey. They will discover little known stories of German occupation of the Channel Islands and they will love reading about how reading the classics transformed the lives of the society members. John Booker (former butler) loved to quote Seneca as saying, “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.” Truly, some in the book have experienced inexpressible sorrows, but these are handled very well by the author. For the most part this is a very light-hearted book about the resilience of men and women who keep living AND GIVING in spite of the pain in their lives.
The charm wears thin when it should (when some of the horrors of WWII are described), but sometimes wears thin where it shouldn’t (when it describes the sexual preferences of one of the main characters). That didn’t fit the tone of a 1940’s era book, but it’s one of my few quibbles. Even the occasional swearing didn’t bother me because it was not gratuitous and seemed to fit the context of the book’s tragic moments.
One of the amazing features of the book is how it shows simple people with no training in the classics grappling to understand them AND SUCCEEDING. Eben Ramsey, a tombstone cutter and wood carver, tackled Shakespeare and sent his impressions to Miss Ashton:
[The book I chose] was called Selections from Shakespeare. Later, I came to see that Mr. Dickens and Mr. Wordsworth were thinking of men like me when they wrote their words. But most of all, I believe that William Shakespeare was. Mind you, I cannot always make sense of what he says, but it will come.
It seems to me the less he said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is “The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.”
I wish I’d known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them – and come off ships down in the harbor! All I could think of was "damn them, damn them", over and over. If I could have thought the words “the bright day is done and we are for the dark,” I’d have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance – instead of my heart sinking to my shoes. (p. 63)
What lovely proof of the power of words to console us! If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t read this (all two of you!), head to your library and get a copy.