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. [Read more…]