The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, though far from being a mystery novel, still managed to perplex the WU Breakthrough Novel Dissection Group more than nearly any of our prior reads. While the concept of the story, which explores England’s emergence from the harsh shadow of WWII, holds a natural appeal, we were confused at how a novel so highly regarded, both within our group and with readers around the globe, could break so many rules we’ve come to expect of our reads. Given its epistolary format, the unfolding tale is relegated to letters, notes and telegrams, lending a reflective air to the action. Moreover, the story unfolds so naturally that it often lacks tension and telegraphs key plots points well in advance. And the characters, even while recounting tragic events, remain decidedly upbeat, scarcely displaying angst or fear.
Yet members of our group, by and large, found much to praise in the writing. Christopher Blake enjoyed the ensemble cast of “odd, diverse characters who might not have bonded, except for the dire circumstances in which they found themselves.” Leslie Budewitz felt the novel succeeded at “showing the universal through the particular” in its depiction of resilience to wartime occupation through the small acts of residents of a tiny island. And as Alisha Rohde noted succinctly, “The story had a lot of warmth to it.”
So, with that in mind, the overriding question that drives all of our dissections – “How did the author achieve breakthrough appeal?” – moved along a different tack. Indeed, our discussions repeatedly returned to considering how the authors, the late Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, connected with readers despite the challenges of their chosen narrative format and the largely predictable plot elements. Through our exploration, we hit upon these fundamental strengths, which not only sustained the novel but elevated it to both critical acclaim and commercial success:
- Shaffer and Barrows captured an appealing real-life setting, shedding light on a dark moment in its history.
- They crafted a delightful ensemble of characters that readers could embrace and celebrate.
- They anchored the story with heart, offering a reassuring tale of resilience in the face of tragedy.
Fair warning that *spoilers* lurk in the following recap of our exploration of these attributes.
Transporting Readers to a Moment in Time
As with one of our prior reads, A Gentleman in Moscow, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society draws the reader back in time by offering a glimpse into a smaller world against the backdrop of a looming evil. In this case, the grand hotel standing stalwart against the rising tide of Stalinist Russia in A Gentleman in Moscow is replaced with a small, windswept channel island facing an onslaught of occupying German forces. Shaffer and Barrows contrast loving images of the isle with details of true wartime horrors faced by its inhabitants – family separations, rising hunger, citizen arrests. As Natalie Hart explained,
The authors excelled in giving us a snapshot of that time period and that island–educating many readers about a place and time we may have known little about. The tone and voice were strengths, as well. Although the story centered around some difficult topics, the book was easy and enjoyable to read.”
Al Budde noted too that the epistolary format, despite creating distance from the story action, was effective at evoking nostalgia for the period. Alisha felt the letters also “allowed for lots of telling (in a good way), and … made it possible to fill in lots of historical information and jump over bits that weren’t as important.”
A Diverse Ensemble of Compelling Characters
A prominent theme of the novel is the connections forged in times of distress. Friendships bloom. Communities form. The book title itself, which the group regarded as both charming and (mildly) off-putting, alludes to a “society” created as a spontaneous lie to shield a handful of islanders from harm after breaking the curfew imposed by occupying enemy forces. It is this central cast of secondary characters, the group concluded, which transformed the novel. To that end, there was lengthy discussion of how Elizabeth, founder of the title society, served as a nearly mythical story hero, in contrast with Juliet as the story protagonist. Even beyond Elizabeth, the group of distinctive secondary characters formed, as Natalie described, “a soul-sustaining tribe,” both to their fictional island community and to readers of the novel. From brooding Dawsey to eccentric Isola to kind-hearted Amelia, they and other society members offered readers a cast of characters for which to cheer when they rose and with which to commiserate when they faltered.
There was universal agreement the story soared as members of the society came into sharper focus over the course of the tale.
A Story Anchored in Heart
Perhaps the strongest attribute of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is its unapologetic heart. Members of the dissection group were intrigued at the backstory of how author Annie Barrows had become involved with the novel after the health of her aunt, author Mary Ann Shaffer, began to falter. From that act, which seems itself a labor of love, to the deft handling of real-life incidents interspersed throughout the fictional tale, many of them heartbreaking, the novel never shies away from the tragedies of life. As Natalie pointed out early in the discussion, for a novel with a light tone overall, it carried passages which resonated on a much deeper level, such as this lamentation on death and mourning,
When my son, Ian, died at El Alamein visitors offering their condolences, thinking to comfort me, said “Life goes on.” What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on; Ian is dead now and will be dead tomorrow and next year and forever. There’s no end to that. But perhaps there will be an end to the sorrow of it.”
That passage reveals another aspect of the heart of the novel, an enduring optimism that many in the group found refreshing in these uncertain times. It was an unexpected charm that surprised many of us, perhaps best expressed by Alisha, who summed up her feelings as follows:
The thing is, I was really in the mood for a comfort food-type of book, and this was good timing. It was really enjoyable, and I found myself inclined to just go with the flow of the book, overall. I honestly suspect that comforting quality has been part of its appeal for other readers.”
These are just a few of our take-aways in a book brimming with heart, but not entirely flawless. What are your thoughts? If you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, what aspects did you find inspiring, helpful, or frustrating? What elements did you consider to be strengths, or weaknesses? If you haven’t read it, can you relate to these observations in your own works in progress? Please share your thoughts below, so that we can learn together.
And if you’d like to join the group for our next dissection in January 2019, when we will dissect the mystery thriller In the Woods by author Tana French, please join us on Facebook. We would love to welcome you!