Each summer, we are inundated with the next best “beach reads”: light, often fluffy, stories of friendships, travel, romance, and magic jeans with little enough consequence that we aren’t required to use too much brain power to enjoy them. And that’s fine and nice and all, but why does summer have to mean that we switch off our brains? Why does light reading also seem to mean lacking substance?
Well, here to solve this conundrum is Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer’s lovely and delightful The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a light but hardly substance-less epistolary novel tracing London writer Juliet Ashton’s growing friendship with the residents of Guernsey of the Channel Islands just as the ashes of World War II are starting to settle. Through her letters back and forth with the islanders, including Dawsey, a quiet, thoughtful farmer who first contacted Juliet after receiving her copy of Charles Lamb’s poetry; Isola, an exuberant and eccentric purveyor of potions and herbal remedies; Amelia, who hosted the secret dinner that became the unofficial first meeting of the society; and Eben, a kind fisherman who takes care of his grandson, Juliet learns of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, the loss of one of the islanders’ dearest friends, and the role the titular Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in the islanders’ survival of the occupation and war. Ultimately, Juliet visits the island, finding both inspiration for her writing and great new relationships she never expected.
This is certainly a quick and easy read. Shaffer (and Barrows) writes Juliet as a breezy, cosmopolitan professional girl of the 1930’s and 40’s. Reading her letters, especially to her best friend, Sophie, and to her editor (and Sophie’s brother), Simon, feels like you are talking to someone straight out of Masterpiece Mystery in the best possible way. But do not mistake the ease of read nor apparent flippant nature of Juliet for disregard or disrespect for the events covered in the novel. Juliet lived through the bombing of London, narrowly escaping death when her apartment was directly hit while she was out for a short bit. Her airiness is paired with a friendly candidness, and it is this combination of attitudes that is helping her process her experiences during and right after the war. And it is this candidness that prevents her from becoming unlikable, annoying, or of little to no consequence. Instead, Juliet as a character remains grounded, likable, and sympathetic, essential characteristics when she is the main correspondent presenting the narrative.
Shaffer is the primary author of the novel (her niece, Barrows, took over some sections due to health concerns), and she does a remarkable job of creating several distinct characters through voice, imperative to the success of an epistolary novel. Fortunately, each character, from Juliet and Simon to Isola and Dawsey, is incredibly individual and fully realized, and this is due to the fact that Shaffer not only knows and loves her characters deeply but writes their individual voices consistently. Sometimes I feel like a character feels like a different character depending on when we are in their thoughts or observing them as others do, but that is not the case here. Each character has his or her joys, sorrows, dreams, and burdens, and each one is an absolute delight in his or her own way. It is easy to fall in love with them as a reader and easy to see why Shaffer enjoyed creating them.
Shaffer also engaged in impressive and thorough historical research with this novel, shining a light on a little discussed element of World War II. Though I first read this novel several years ago, I did not really know much about the German occupation of the Channel Islands until that first reading. This novel is certainly not exhaustive in its history, but it seems to be meticulously researched. What is special, though, is Shaffer introduces her readers to this little known bit of history by putting a human, albeit fictional, face on the issue. And she does not paint the situation as black and white, either. She deals with the nuances of humanity, good and evil, duty and other themes admirably through the inclusion of a character who was not as straightforward as his uniform might otherwise have us believe. It’s a lovely, personal approach to a terrible time in the islands’ history.
So yes, this is an easy and fast read. It’s the perfect length for an afternoon at the beach or in your backyard or even ensconced in your favorite chair. However, it is packed chock full of substance, and honestly, that is the way I like all of my books, beach and otherwise. (Full of substance–books don’t always have to be easy and fast to read!) So go ahead and give it a shot!