They say a good book changes you, and I am not the same after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This wonderfully lyrical book captures the essence of life and love in the most delightfully refreshing format–old-fashioned, hand-written letters. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows crafted a stunningly beautiful love letter to literature and the power of books to feed the human spirit.
As a lover of historical fiction, this book was immediately dear to me. I have a distinct nostalgia for historical fiction, particularly that which is set in England. I suppose this has a lot to do with the fact that I am a hopeless Anglophile. I was prepared to enjoy the book, but what I was not prepared for was to be so captivated and enchanted with the characters to the point that I truly felt they were dear friends of mine. I found myself laughing out loud at their witty exchanges (followed by smirks from my boyfriend), crying along with them at their heartaches, and sighing with satisfaction at their triumphs.
This was my first experience reading a book in letters (which I have recently learned is called an epistolary novel) and now I am desperate to find another one. The honesty and informality of that type of exchange brought to life the exquisiteness of human relationships. I was charmed by the budding relationships between the heroine, Juliet, and each of the members of the literary society. I too felt as though I was forming new bonds with strangers who would become friends. As I discovered the stories of each of these Guernsey residents, I felt them becoming more endeared to me with each letter.
I felt myself discovering the beautiful isle of Guernsey with my witty and instantly lovable tour guide–Juliet, the vibrantly charismatic heroine of the story. The sand squidged between my toes, the cool salty water lapped around my ankles, and the gusty wind billowed through my hair as I explored Guernsey with Juliet. I was delighted as each of Juliet’s (and my) budding friendships bloomed like the verdant, supple shoots of spring. I was hopelessly won over by the precocious Kit, desperately intrigued by the mysterious Elizabeth, wonderfully charmed by the eccentric Isola, and stubbornly resistant, yet deliciously tempted by the rising inkling of romance with the stoic Dawsey.
My eyes were also opened to a rich history that I had previously not known about–the German occupation of Guernsey. But the presentation of the humanity of that time is something not to be found in a textbook. This exquisite little book shares the impact of war on the human spirit, and the resilience of a community that banded together and clung on to their fragile happiness, faith, and hope by the threads of great literature. Words. Words had the power to sustain them. In the midst of the darkest of times–when their bodies were malnourished, their eyes bearing witness to horrors, their minds filled with worry and dread–their souls were well fed. All due to the inexplicable power of beautiful words.
Books were the only things that gave the society members something to live for, something to find happiness and joy in, something to block out the dark inhumanity that surrounded them. During those unthinkable times when enemy forces pervaded, food was rapidly dwindling, children were sent away from their parents, and the imminent sense of despair hung over the island like a dark cloud–books were the things that they cleaved to to lift their sprits, to remind them of better times, of light and airiness, of hope. This intricate little society, haphazardly formed, blossomed into the most beautiful family. The bonds of literature that they shared developed into the bonds of friendship and powerful, true, and abiding love for one another.
Literature that can transport you to another time and place accomplishes a stunning feat. For words written on a page to have the power to blur the lines of reality surrounding you and make the fictional world more real to you is what every writer hopes for and what every reader craves. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society unquestionably replaced my living room with the salty smell of sea air, the wartime uncertainty of an occupied island, and the faces of the literary society members valiantly clinging to one another and to the beauty of life within the pages of books. To breathe life into characters and settings so that they leap off the pages at readers is not a simple task, but one that Schaffer and Barrows masterfully achieved. A magnificent book for lovers of literature and of life.