The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – Review

GuernseyI’ll admit to a high degree of nervousness in writing this review. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society has after all been one of the publishing success stories of the last few years, regularly earning 4 and 5 stars from Goodreads members. So in declaring that I didn’t care for this book I know I am going very much against the tidal wave of opinion.

My copy from the library came with a sticker on the front cover declaring this to be a ‘mood busting book’. That in itself should have been sufficient warning. My experience with this kind of reading is pretty much the same as my reactions to anything described as ‘feel good’ or ‘warm hearted’. I see the attraction but seldom feel excited by these books. However The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society is the book club selection for May so I felt I had to give it a go.

It’s set in 1946 London where the writer Juliet Ashton, who’s had a tremendous run of success with a newspaper column turned novel, is looking for an idea for her next book. A letter from a stranger in Guernsey piques her interest with its oblique reference to a society with a rather bizarre name. It’s the beginning of a correspondence with several islanders who reveal details of life during the time of the German Occupation of their island. The literary society got started as a way of covering up a get together during which a bunch of neighbours feasted on an illicit pig. Juliet eventually decides she has to go to Guernsey to meet her new-found friends in person. 

This is told in epistolary fashion with letters whizzing between Juliet in London and her friends in Guernsey, between Juliet and her friend in Scotland, and her agent who takes off for a mercy mission to Australia. Plus there are letters between Juliet and her suave new boyfriend (why they couldn’t use the phone to arrange their dinner dates I don’t understand – they were not that rare for people in their class in the 40s) . Herein lay the first of my problems with the novel — there wasn’t enough variation in the voices used for the different correspondents. The Guernsey letter writers all sounded so similar that it became difficult to see them as anything more than ciphers.

The tone in which the story is relayed grated on me. Juliet was obnoxiously and relentlessly gushing, greeting every new piece of information from her pen friends with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  And those pen friends, gosh weren’t they just such CHARACTERS!!  A bitter shrew, a salt of the earth wood carver, a saintly woman who sacrifices her life for a Polish prisoner and a cute kid ; they all come across like people from central casting rather than people you might actually encounter.

If those flaws are not enough, you can throw into the mix a love angle and a denouement that you’d have to be a complete idiot not to see coming even half way through the book. It all gets tied up in a nice Happy Ever ribbon.

It gives me no pleasure to point out the defects of this book. I feel rather mean for doing so when I consider that it was written by a woman who had a life-long dream to become an author became critically ill before she could finish this, her debut novel. Diagnosed with cancer Mary Ann Shaffer asked her niece (a published author in her own right) to complete the book.

The result isn’t completely without merit of course. We get served some insights about the dark reality of the Occupation of Guernsey to counterbalance the light and frothy tone and a few comic moments. I enjoyed hearing of one character whose repeated re-reading of Seneca’s Letters while a member of the literary society saved him from being a drunk and of another islander who made the mistake of reading a cookery book to society members who had been surviving on turnip soup for weeks. 

But such moments are rare jewels that are not enough to make the novel sparkle. 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 24, 2014, in Book Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I was sorry about the romance element of this as well. If it had stopped at being a book that revealed the horrors of what the people in the Channel Isles had to go through during the war (which was something I really didn’t know enough about) it would have been a much better book.

  2. I don;t do well with “feel good” books either so I have been avoiding this in spite of several people telling me it is really good. I think I will now continue to avoid it!

  3. I can see where you are coming from. Books described as heartwarming raise a red flag to me too. I have this book at home (it was gift) but never felt enthused enough to read it.

    • That’s an awkward situation Nish. I’m always nervous in case the person who gave it to me asks what I thought and the I feel guilty of I haven’t read it, or of I did read it but didn’t like it.

  4. Totally agree with you. For me the one saving grace of the book is that I’ve always wanted to go to the Channel Islands.

  5. Finally, a negative review of this book! I agree with your review, I couldn’t get into this book or see why it got the raves it did. The characters seemed way too “cute” to me. Even though I thought the historical aspect was fascinating. Great review.

  6. Oh dear, oh dear. Poor you. I adored this book Now filtered through time I remember how it reminded me that he spirit can carry you through hard times, the feeling of not being dictated to over what you can do or not do. And in Australia today it is Anzac Day when we remember those who have fought to keep our country safe. And the those islanders were in a terrible wartime situation and their story which unfolds of their lives reminds me of how Australians would have reacted in the same situation. I haven’t known a single person who didn;t relate to this book. But then we all have different tastes and that is as it should be. I do enjoy reading your blog.

    • I could relate to the experience of the islanders and would have liked to see more of it featured. Why she had to wrap the romance element around it, I can’t imagine.

  7. I listened to the audio version of this a few years ago and felt much the same way you did. There were parts, especially in the first half or so, that I found charming, and I liked the setting, but the book as a whole ended up getting on my nerves.

  8. I admire honest reviews- sometimes difficult when a very popular work doesn’t quite do it for you. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  9. I’ve had this on my TBR for a long while (coming from Jersey I should have read it long ago) so it is good to hear a different point of view, skilfully written.

  10. It’s good to read your review. I actually donated this book recently…I wasn’t able to get into it for some reason, despite its popularity and the rave review coming from a good friend. I’m glad to know it wasn’t just me.

  11. Whilst I loved the book, it could have been better. I agree with what you have commented on in your review. In fact, in 2011 we were on holiday in the neighbouring Channel Island of Jersey. (The Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazi’s in the Second World War).

    On a rather damp, dreary, grey looking day in July we visited the Underground Hospital. I have I don’t think ever been so moved by a building, built by the labour of imprisoned individuals. In fact Jersey is a beautiful place and everywhere you look there are proud that they overcame the regime from 1940. There are statues, plaques and a variety of other ways in which the islanders note the Second World War. Over the last few years I have blogged about the Jersey experience – including some posts about the underground hospitals with pictures. You might have to delve into the thread of posts with the Channel Island tag, but they are there if you are interested.

    Anyway, before I digress again and you go to sleep. I read again this book after my visit. I still enjoyed it and it could have been so much better.

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