Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Favourites: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Soicety by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The last time I finished an entire novel in one day was when the last Harry Potter book came out. And then this book came my way. After relishing each letter (pun intended) thoroughly, I looked up to find that the entire day had passed and I was sitting with a finished book. Completely unexpected, it really was that good.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (henceforth Guernsey; note to self: please find out how to properly pronounce the darned name and stop putting e's after Potato) is a novel composed of the written correspondence between a fictional "light journalist"/writer Juliet Ashton and her friends, especially those residing on the small English Channel island of Guernsey. I don't want to spoil the story by telling you what happens, because I know I'll gush over it and tell you everything. But to give you a hint, the novel gives you a taste of life in England during and directly after World War II, moving from the mundane aspects of daily life, to the most emphatic emotional scenes available to the human imagination.

There were times when I found myself laughing out loud (e.g. the teapot throwing incident), and times when I felt the need to pause and reflect on the nature of humanity, both good and bad. There were even times when I felt like crying, for reasons both good and bad. Although, now that I think about it, that might just have been me being overly sensitive (thank you, PMS). All in all, this book is definitely a feel-good story with substance and will lift your spirits right up. This ain't your Bergdorf Blonde's story about her handbag that was to be had and just could not. No m'dears. This be a meaningful and downright funny story about humanity at both its best and worst, but without making you contemplate ending your life.

Part of the fun of the book comes from the actual format. Everyone loves to pry and eavesdrop, and I'm no exception to this, although I'm more inclined to blame it on "human nature". All that aside, everyone likes to know about everyone else's business, and this book feeds on that. Part of my reason for reading was that I was intrigued by the letters and wanted to dig deeper into Juliet's life, and the lives of her friends. I wanted to know what would be revealed in the next letter, and I can honestly say that I was never disappointed. (Side note: this was better than prying through real mail, since bills, oh how odious, never made an appearance.)

Shaffer and Barrows truly used their form to develop characters and the plot in ways that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. For example, the use of character reference letters for Juliet worked to create dimension and lay out her personality in a way that is unusal (and very interesting, very fresh). Juliet's essential goodness and stubborn adherence to justice goes from being a 2-D trait into a 3-D trait when we find out that she's used 2 people as her character references, one an individual who truly approves of her, and the other an individual who is confounded by her. The character reference letters themselves develop Juliet in juxtaposition to these characters while providing insight into the reference-providers. It's all a wonderful, complicated way of building shadow and light into the texture of the narrative. Brava, ladies!

Another point that endears
Guernsey to me is the fact that so much of the narrative revolves around the act of reading. Correspondence regularly includes mention of authors, books, and the joys of reading. These allusions work to expand the book's reach from beyond the small fictional world into the wider social world. It's interesting to note the similarities and differences between the authors and works discussed in the book in relation to the lives and times of those who are discussing them. Furthermore, any book that celebrates the good that reading can bring is almost always guaranteed to go up a grade with me. Shaffer and Barrows are able to seamlessly blend reading and books into their story about love found and lost. Fantastic!

For me personally
Guernsey has truly become a favourite. I'm definitely re-reading it soon, and will probably go back to it a few times over. It's got the perfect balance of humour and harrowing experience to satisfy me. The characters are real, and fresh. The narrative flows at a good pace. It speaks volumes without requiring as much space. However, as much as I love it, I know that not everyone will enjoy reading it. Thus, my recommendations follow.

Guernsey is not for anyone who:
  • dislikes reading about World War II or the holocaust in any way whatsoever
  • needs a thriller, murder mystery, or fast-paced plot
  • is looking for chick-lit of the usual commodified form (as in revolving around money, clothes, shoes, and shopping)
  • dislikes reading about reading or books
  • requires a darker feel to their reading choice (e.g. gothic, graphic, etc.)
Guernsey is for anyone who:
  • loves reading and enjoys narratives that play on people's love for books
  • enjoys reading about times gone by, particularly that of England post-WWII
  • is looking for a feel-good book with substance
  • wants something different to read other than the same old regular prose

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