The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Sweet and sour…

😀 😀 😀 🙂


the guernsey literary and potato peel societyNot long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society…

The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet’s letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.

And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.

German troops marching along Guernsey's seafront during the occupation in WW2
German troops marching along Guernsey’s seafront during the occupation in WW2

The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they’re not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren’t deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don’t think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.

Mary Ann Shaffer (seated) and Annie Barrows
Mary Ann Shaffer (seated) and Annie Barrows

The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.

Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn’t love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you’re looking for.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

80 thoughts on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

  1. You know, I’ve been wondering what you’d think of this one, FictionFan. It’s certainly been getting an awful lot of ‘happy press,’ and I’ve had it on my own radar, actually. Hmm…..I’ll probably still read it, as everyone can use a light ‘pick me up’ sort of read at times. Glad you found things to enjoy about it.

    • Yes, it’s quite an enjoyable read, even though I found it unconvincing in a lot of ways. But not every book needs to be about the grim realities – sometimes a bit of light escapism is just what the doctor ordered…

  2. Thanks for the warning. The title alone had put me off this, I confess. Well, it could have been The Girl in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I spose . . .

    • I’ve been put off it for years by the title, and it does more or less live up to that level of tweeness, sadly. Haha! With a cover showing a girl in a red jacket running from the Nazis…

  3. Hmm. This sounds a bit bland for my liking, but it is a nice review as ever, FF. Anyway – I can’t possibly even consider reading anything else just at the moment. I have worked my way through Book 1 of the Wake! 😀

    • Thank you! Yes, too bland, especially for its subject matter. I’d have preferred it as a light romance without the war aspects to be honest. Haha! You’re my heroine! I’m frightened to ask how many books are in it… 😉

      • It sounds like it isn’t quite one thing or another to me.
        There are only four books, but apparently 2 & 3 are the really surreal ones. I’m not entirely sure if I have a grip on the first one – the bloke I thought was dead seems to have come back to life and changed names several times. Also – pretty sure none of the jurors died and it turns out they might be customers in a pub anyway *shakes head*

        • Hahahaha! It sounds great! I’m almost sorry I’m not reading it now! Can’t wait for you to get to the really surreal bits… perhaps the jurors are dead after all and return as zombies… or teetotallers!! That’d kill the pub crawl stone dead…

          • It sounds like I understand what’s going on – I am only taking wild guesses at what the ‘plot’ might be but it’s actually quite good fun! Maybe everyone is dead… I think someone got shot in the bum too… If I stick to the bits where everyone is drunk, it makes perfect sense 😉

            • I had to check wikipedia to see whether it had a plot summary – it says “Despite the obstacles, readers and commentators have reached a broad consensus about the book’s central cast of characters and, to a lesser degree, its plot. However, a number of key details remain elusive.” Hahahaha! Sounds like you’re following it pretty well… 😉

            • I did a wee bit of research before reading so I realised that there wasn’t anything too concrete regarding the plot, but I didn’t want to find out too much in case it spoiled the surreal experience. I have a plot summary of each book which I will read after I complete each book. Tonight I get to read the first one so I can see how well I followed it!

            • Perhaps it would be easier to follow if you’d been on a pub crawl before reading it. Worth a try, I think! I still think you’re either very brave or nuts… *preserves a tactful silence* 😉

            • Well – I got the bit about the bloke coming back to life and having lots of different names, I had made loads of notes about the ‘museyroom’ (museum) that I thought was really important but turns out that was an irrelevant bit. I got that HCE had committed a crime (possibly) but I thought he had either shot a Russian or made his friend’s wife pregnant. Turns out he maybe raped two young girls. But I did pick up that there was sex involved. I give myself a 4 and I am rather proud of that!

            • Hahaha! Sounds to me as if you’re understanding it pretty well, which I must say I find deeply worrying! Maybe the two young girls were Russian… or pregnant… or worked in the museyroom! I give you at least 7! I suspect this is really an admissions test for Bletchley Park…

            • The tough bit is knowing what bits to try and work out and which bits are just random babble. There’s a lot of random babble, believe me. Mind you, they might be really important bits… arrgh it’s impossible to know! I am going to be completely insane by the time I finish this 🙂 On to Book 2!

            • I’m trying so hard not to say you must have been completely insane before you started it! 😉 Good luck with book 2 – I bet it was the butler whodunit…

            • He seems to be alive at the moment, but the line between life and death in this book seems to be so thin as to be almost irrelevant 🙂 (I’m actually loving it. I thought about blogging my progress but you just know some smart alec will go into the comments and put in spoilers!)

            • My sister loved it too, which surprised me – didn’t think it was her kind of thing at all. You’re tempting me to try it… but I’ll wait and see if you survive! You should! You could always put a note at the bottom specifically asking people not to include spoilers in comments – though since it appears no-one in the world has ever worked out what it’s about, you should be safe… 😉

            • It’s brilliant, but it does take a bit of getting used to. And I can’t read it without my face going a funny shape 🙂 I was *supposed* to be taking a break from blogging to get some other stuff done but this is too entertaining not to share with the world. I am tempted… (You should have a crack at it, see what you think when I get around to writing my review!)

            • Oh dear – my face can do that without reading – I’m scared now! Yes, sometimes something just demands to be blogged about – and those things usually turn into the best posts! Go for it!

    • You Americans just have to be wrong, don’t you? Oh, sorry – typo! I meant, different!!

      Not terribly Professorial, I would think. Aunt and niece, I believe – well spotted!

        • ‘Tis not the truth! See, that was your natural instinct for correctness taking over… *nods*

          *laughs* You’re beginning to sound like a witch’s potion! Eye of eagle, ear of toad… you don’t perhaps have a tail like a rat, do you?

            • Oh, no you can’t be a weasel – they were the bad guys in The Wind in the Willows, I’m afraid. You can be an otter if you like though. They’re beautifully sleek and velvety…

              Tuppence is intrigued by the reported whiskers. I, on the other hand, suggest urgent shaving…

            • Well, probably all true though I wasn’t aware of their wrestling skills. But they’re also weaselly and is that a good thing?

              Hmm… perhaps not. But is she scarier than me?

  4. The title of this put me off – too determinedly whimsical. I think your review has confirmed my suspicions, too saccharin for my taste. Its always fun to have my prejudices confirmed 😀

    • Yes, it put me off for ages too, and the book is a bit on the twee side for me. Though actually I could have put up with the sweetness more if it hadn’t been about the war – the two things didn’t sit well together, I thought. Haha! Yes, I always enjoy that too… 😉

  5. Read this years ago and enjoyed it! At the time I was in the mood for something lighter, having just read The Book Thief (which was excellent). This book hit the spot!

    • Yes, it is an enjoyable light read, even if I didn’t find it completely convincing. But it’s hugely popular – I’m not sure I’ve seen many books with so many glowing reviews.

  6. I read this years ago and loved it, but now, I have to admit, I don’t remember it very well so I couldn’t tell you why I loved it. I think it might have been the letters, and the heart-warming idea of it. Also, the setting would have come into it for me. I wonder what I’d think of it now…
    The title of this always makes me think of the place I worked the summer before my last year of university: Jewell’s Country Gardens and Potato Blossom Tea Room. A mouthful. Especially when answering the phone!

    • It was one of these books that everyone was reading a few years back and I never got around to it – partly because the title made it sound like it might be too sweet for me, as indeed it turned out to be. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless – definitely heart-warming.

      Hahaha! Great name! It must have had an enormous sign over the door – or very small lettering! 😉

  7. Can you imagine a contemporary book of letters?! It’s a dying art form for sure. It would be a horrid mess of Tweets and Instagram posts! But I find letters unreliable even then. People tend to romanticize their lives in them, which may account for the saccharine element. I remember reading ancestral letters during WWII and there seemed to be a chin up approach, which is understood but not exactly authentic. Great review!

    • I really regret the passing of the written letter – even e-mail seems to be dying in favour of txt spch. I only really had one period when I got lots of letters, when I did a student job away from home in my teens, and all my friends and I wrote copiously to each other all summer. I still have them all – it’s amazing how quickly they take you back to the time, and seeing lots of different viewpoints of the same events. And the personalities leap off the pages! Even seeing all the different handwriting is fun… now everything we read is in Times New Roman or equivalent.

  8. Sounds like the authors had a difficult time re-creating realistic characters from that time period. This was one I had put on the far back burner after meeting one of the authors at a workshop for children’s literature. Her children’s books are pretty sassy, so it’s surprising that this one would slide into the saccharine pit. Will have to rethink that far back burner.

    • I suspect that would have been the niece? I get the impression the aunt did the story and characterisation and the niece really just tidied the whole thing up. I do get a bit annoyed when historical characters are made to have contemporary opinions – it destroys any sense of realism for people who know anything about the period, and would be very misleading for people who don’t. But (as usual) I have to say I’m in a tiny minority – most people seem to have loved this one…

  9. Yet another book I’ve had sitting on my bookshelf for literally years! I have to admit that anachronistic attitudes applied to the past in fiction (and movies) is one of my bugaboos.

    “Sickly sweet” and grim inhumanity is a rather unique combination! I’d like to read it (since I bought it….but it was at a used book sale for only $1), but need to wait until I can finally read books like Black Narcissus (which is also now sitting on my shelf)!

    • I really dislike when historical characters are made to think and act like 21st century liberals – it’s so unrealistic. It’s perfectly possible to write a character with authentic opinions and still make them likeable within the context.

      Haha! Yes, I thought it was a kinda odd combo! But I have to say the vast majority of reviews for this are glowing so don’t let me put you off (though Black Narcissus is a far, far, far, far, far, far better book… 😉 ) Anyway you’ll be too busy reading Clarissa!

  10. Well, I’m not sure this one would be my cup of tea, though I do like the concept of a tale told strictly in letters. Today’s generation would prefer texts or tweets, I’m certain, but folks at one time wrote lots of letters. I still write my BFF from childhood, though our letters have evolved from beginning cursive into lengthy typed pages!

    • I don’t have any proper letter writing pals nowadays, but I do regret that we don’t write letters any more, and even e-mails are giving way to texts and tweets and suchlike. It used to be so exciting when a letter arrived airmail from one of American or Canadian relatives – now we phone. It’s lovely to speak to them, but it’s not the same as a letter that would get passed round the family and read and re-read. And as for txt spch… grrr!! When I rule the world, it’ll be banned!!

  11. I really did enjoy reading this because the historical stuff is so accurate based upon the information available in the War Tunnels here in Jersey – I actually took another visitor there at Easter time and the letters that were written to ‘dob’ others into the Germans had the exact views that you point out as less ‘twee’

    • Yes, it was odd – I liked both bits separately – the heartwarming romantic stuff and the war stuff – but didn’t think they really worked together somehow. I visited the Jersey War Tunnels many years ago with my mother – it wasn’t till I visited Jersey that I even became aware the Channel Islands had been occupied. It’s horrible to think of people turning each other in to the Germans! How awful, especially in such a small community – I bet there are still families that remember these things…

    • Indeed! I’m having a bit of run of slightly disappointing books at the moment… perhaps it’s just me. But the ones I haven’t read yet always look so good… 😉

  12. I read this back in the book’s heyday but don’t remember much about the story. I enjoyed your review and was very interested to see the photo you’ve included, which didn’t fit my mental picture of Guernsey.

    • Guernsey didn’t look like I expected either – somehow I was expecting it to much more rural and sort of windswept. But then I also didn’t expect to see the Germans marching to a brass band!

  13. If anyone is interested in a contemporary book written entirely in letters, check out Dear Everybody by Micheal Kimball. Fantastic stuff. His book Us got a shout out from Oprah.

    I wonder if the potato book is uneven due to tell authors. I would think each would take on writing the letter of one character to prevent them from sounding the same like they did.

    • Thanks for the rec – I’ll check it out though, in truth, epistolary type books aren’t really my favourite thing…

      I don’t think so in this case – I believe the aunt wrote the whole thing, but then asked the niece to tidy it up for her since the niece had writing and editing experience. So it wasn’t a collaboration in the usual sense.

  14. I read this one years ago, so many years ago in fact, that I can barely remember the plot. But I do remember it made me feel… cosy. Excellent review, it has made me want to revisit it.

    • Thank you! Yes, it is one of those heartwarming kinds of books, even if I did think the bits about the horrors made it feel a bit off balance. But I do see why so many people enjoyed it so much… 🙂

  15. I’ve heard so many raves about this one but it’s just never appealed to me. Your review clinches that it’s probably overly sweet for me. I’m with you on disliking when characters in historical fiction are too modern in their attitudes.

    • I suspected it might be too sweet for me, but I was worn down by all the rave reviews 😉 Yes, I don’t see much point in putting a story into a historical setting if not to show what life was really like then, and these islanders were more modern on their attitudes than most modern people are! I’d rather read authentic attitudes even if they occasionally leave me tutting and shaking my head…

  16. I loved the book, read it years ago. Just recently got a copy from the library …audiobook. It was better the second time listening to it on my cell phone

    • I can imagine it would be a good one to convert to audiobook, bringing all the different characters to life. It was a bit too sweet for my taste but I could certainly see why people love it so much. 🙂

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