Despite the best efforts of the authors and publishers to put me off reading the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by lumbering it with a title so unbearably twee and self-consciously wacky, the pull of a book that people talked about as if it were a member of their own family (they either love or hate it) trumped both the title and the revolting soft-focus cover.
And I’m glad I overcame my prejudice. You could pick enough holes in this novel to dig a tunnel from Portsmouth to Guernsey, but it’s so utterly charming and touching that it’s best to step over them and instead wallow in the novel’s joys.
TGLAPPPS (bleugh) is that most tricksy of formats, an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters during 1946. Juliet Ashton is a single woman in her early 30s with a column in The Spectator that’s become a successful first book (think a Blitz Bridget Jones) living amongst the rubble and the post-war gloom of London. Out of the blue she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey who bought a second hand book on Charles Lamb that had once belonged to her and is now writing to Juliet to ask for help digging out more of Lamb’s back catalogue.
The unlikely pair bond over a shared love of reading and their correspondence deepens. Juliet is soon enlisting Dawsey and his friends in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for help with an article for The Times she is writing on the value of reading. Juliet is soon tripping over to Guernsey where she meets a cast of characters straight out of the encyclopaedia of country bumpkins, but with enough emotional padding to avoid Vicar of Dibley caricatures.
TGLAPPPS is about many things; the German occupation of the Channel Islands, the kindness and the brutality of humans, friendship, love and loyalty. But above all it’s about the love of reading. The novel imbues with the characters’ passion for books – not always positive – but always very heartfelt. I mentally airpunched when Juliet dumped her fiancee after he attempted to throw away all her books to make way for his shooting trophies. Juliet is also dismissed as a fire warden after running into the burning Inner Temple Hall Library in a bid to save the books. This is a woman I’d happy have a sherry with.
TGLAPPPS is, as that title suggests, a little twee, but it’s also permeated with a darkness, the emotional and physical effects of the war casting a shadow over the chirpy voices in the letters.
Shaffer and Barrows don’t quite master the art of the epistolary format. Juliet, who starts off in such fine voice, rather vanishes towards the end and there wasn’t enough distinction in the characters’ voices at times. Americans Shaffer and Barrows don’t quite get the subtleties of British dialects, although they handled Juliet’s Mitfordian voice with an ease that would have given them an A+ in Downton Abbey studies.
The cast of characters and the ending teeter on the edge of self-parody, but there’s a charm and enough bite to the story to make The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a delightfully heartwarming read that’s far better than that clunky title implies.
by Suzanne Elliott