I’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.