Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2009

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

Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie SocietyI read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society back in May, but felt hesitant about expressing my reservations about it because it was on the top of the New York Times bestseller list for ages, and well, because the author died without ever seeing her book in print.  This is a ‘heart-warming novel’ by a ‘tragic’ author so what kind of heartless reader would dare to dismiss it as sentimental twaddle?

Well, me, perhaps, for I am torn between finding this book twee or alternatively somewhat profound, but I’m going to be upfront about it.  I’ve posted about reviewers wimping it when they don’t like a book much, so I’ve decided to risk it.

The serious undercurrent is that the love story – between Dawsey (strong silent type from the island) and Juliet (torn between two lovers, garrulous journalist and writer of morale-boosting newspaper columns during WW2) –  is set on the island of Guernsey occupied by the Germans during the war.  By chance Juliet finds becomes interested and visits it, postwar, to discover its joys and sorrows first hand. Shaffer does not flinch from explaining about German cruelties both on Guerney and in France: the heroine of Guernsey (Elizabeth) was captured and killed by the Nazis and there was widespread deprivation. (Hence the title). And while  it may seem trivial by comparison with being tortured and killed, Juliet’s flat was bombed out and she lost all her books too.  So this aspect of the tale is not twee.   The utterly predictable romance, however, is sentimental twaddle.

Part of the trouble is that the whole story is told through correspondence: Juliet’s letters to and from John Dawsey, her publisher, the sexy boyfriend whose name I forget, her friends in London and so on.  It makes for a claustrophobic point of view, more annoying than first person narrative can sometimes be.  There’s no subtlety: everything is straightforward, sequential, transparent. The only interesting (as in intriguing) element was the vituperative correspondent (Adelaide?) who dared to criticise the saintly Elizabeth, but we never find out why she was so embittered.  Was she really have to be such a B&W character? In this novel people are either good or bad and there is no showdown between this woman and the other characters.

Well, maybe there was.  I skipped a fair bit of the last few chapters.  I had lost interest.


Responses

  1. I hated this book, so am glad to see I am no longer the only person who thought it was twaddle. ;-) I read it last year and just couldn’t understand the fuss about it.

    My review here: http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2008/09/the-guernsey-literary-and-potato-peel-pie-society-by-marry-ann-schaeffer.html

  2. Hey, I am not alone after all! We are a discerning readership of two, Kim! I loved your review:)

  3. Catching up on blogs I missed while I was away. I’ll come out of the closet too and say that I’m not a fan either. It’s a sweet book and I did learn something about the occupation of Guernsey – well that it happened even. I don’t recollect knowing that. But even with the bite of the loss of that character it was a bit too schmaltzy for me. But, I do feel churlish for saying so!!

    • A much better book about the occupation of Guernsey is Tim Binding’s Island Madness. It explores the whole issue of collaboration in a mature and sophisticated way. Children are starving and women can feed them by literally sleeping with the enemy. It shows (like Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise does) that the morality of living under an occupation is not a simple black and white issue. I like to think that I would have been brave and worked for the Resistance, but I’m not sure how I would have handled my child starving if I’d been offered an alternative….

  4. Ah, I hadn’t heard of that one. Books do make us think about what we’d do (or like to think we’d do!) in certain circumstances don’t they?

    • I think I’ve still got it if you want to borrow it…

  5. Thanks muchly Lisa – lovely offer but I’m not sure when I could get to it. I think it’s best in the TBR list at this stage – much as I’d love to read it. I am so behind in my reading.

  6. Now we’re three not to like this book. Goofy and predictible.

  7. <>

    Four. Although there were bits I liked quite a lot and the cover was pretty.

    • But, see above, where the stars at the top of this post are? Someone disagrees and likes the book enough to rate my review as ‘very poor’ but not enough to come out of lurkdom and say why.
      Interesting, McC what you say about the cover. Years ago I did a survey about cover art for some publisher and in the process learned about some of the tricks of the trade. I wish I knew more. Covers are often a really good guide to whether we will like a book or not; you can sometimes judge LOL.
      I should have known about this book before opening it: pink, flowing lettering, whimsical = sentimental chicklit. Chicklit for middle-aged ladies because there are no six inch heels or designer handbags. That = chicklit for sex-in-the-city babes!

  8. Oh dear, that cover news is depressing – truly, I just liked the colours….. The romance was too silly for words, but the Occupation was interesting. BTW I just tried to order that Binding book you mentioned – it’s out of print. Perhaps they’ll reprint it if we all stick in an order…

    • McC, that’s a shame about Island Madness. Have you tried WorldCat.org to see if you can find a copy at a library near you?


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