CAUTION: This book may cause you to commence incognito literary meetings in your bedroom closet, drink gallons of tea, and read Charles Lamb’s essays by the light of a gas lamp.
I first discovered it in the glass display window by the 33 bus station on Wanderstrasse in Basel, Switzerland. I’d walk barefoot on the pavement, taking meticulous care not to step on anything disagreeable, and lingered next to the books. Among them I found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is one of those books where one might judge from the cover and categorize it as a penny farthing soppy romance: that is if it weren’t for the title. However, this is an utterly worthy and completely satisfying read.
The opening lines of this book are most enjoyable in the following setting: with a cup of chilled tea, contained in a mason jar, with any form of seating accommodation from a worn high-back armchair to a rocking horse, and some musical rendition of Autumn Leaves in the air. It radiates an aura that is a conjunction of jazz, crumpled editions of The Times, ancient glass bottles filled with seacoast sand, and a thousand typewritten alphabet letters.
Written in the epistolary form, (in pages of mail sent from one person to another), the tale takes place after World War II and follows the 32-year-old life of an aspiring journalist by the name of Juliet Ashton. Ms. Ashton meets a pig farmer from the obscure island of Guernsey, across the English channel, who had written to her after finding her address in a second hand book (Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb). Juliet goes on to learn about her new acquaintance, Dawsey Adams, and how he and the other islanders endured the agony of war by reading books in fellowship. She then embarks on a journey to Guernsey. Shaffer offers a vast range of characters, from the grey-haired Eben Ramsey (jaundiced teeth, a lover of Shakespeare, and a renowned baker to his companions) to the youngest four-year-old member of the society, Kit McKenna (a tiny blonde child with a bold nature, and a box of treasure that never leaves her side). This is a captivating story of letters, unlikely friendship, books, and an unpalatable potato peel pie.
The recent film adaptation (released in 2018) was captured in Bristol and Devon. Its cast includes Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Matthew Goode, and Penelope Wilton. It is a vibrant and captivating dramatization, but reading the novel first (as per usual) is highly recommended.
By the end of my family’s lengthy vacation period, I had adopted a copy of the novel from a bookstore in town and had begun ingesting every word. This remains a well-loved edition on my private bookshelf and retains a place of honour next to volumes such as The Chronicles of Narnia, A Tale of Two Cities, and the like. Shaffer’s work of art is bound to make you devour more dusty volumes, book a flight to Guernsey (in your daydreams), and participate in the ongoing book club that is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Photo Credit: Maia Gaskovski