Only A Novel

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

Posted in Annie Barrows, Books, Fiction, Literature, Mary Ann Shaffer, Reading, Review by onlyanovel on August 23, 2008
        I didn't like Wuthering Heights at first, but the minute that specter, 
        Cathy, scrabbled her bony fingers on the window glass--I was grasped by 
        the throat and not let go.  With that Emily I could hear Heathcliff's 
        pitiful cries upon the moors.  I don't believe that after reading such 
        a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda 
        Gillyflower's Ill-Used by Candlelight.  Reading good books ruins you for 
        enjoying bad books.

        --from letter of Isola Pribby to Juliet Ashton, dated 19th February, 1946

I first heard about this book on National Public Radio (NPR) a couple of months before it was even released in the US in late July, and therefore before it even got on any of this country’s bestseller lists, and it was mostly because of that brief radio spot that I decided to read it. Well, I’m glad I did, because it is simply a delightful book. I was guffawing from the first pages to the last. It was hard not to.

The book tells the story of how thirtysomething writer Juliet Ashton, looking to find an idea for her next book in a ravaged post-war London, fortuitously finds herself corresponding with the colorful inhabitants of Guernsey—one of the Channel Islands—about their experiences with reading a variety of books during the German occupation of the island, as well as their more sombre wartime experiences. Thus begins a touching, often funny, love affair between Juliet Ashton and the colorful, sometimes endearingly eccentric, islanders. Not even absence from the island, as is the case for one of the central characters, precludes active participation in the collective love affair. And, as this is set during the magical era of pre-email, this budding love affair is nurtured in the warmest, most swoon-worthy way that love affairs can be conducted—through post. It made me wish computers didn’t exist (I still do sometimes). But besides evoking the warmth and charm of a bygone time when letters were thoughtfully and lovingly written and eagerly exchanged, the story is really about the love of books and reading, and what this love does for us—especially during times when sources of comfort, hope, and wisdom are rare—, and the indifference of good books to our different stations in life.

The plot did have one quite mundane element in particular that potentially could have dampened my enthusiasm for the book, but I can forgive the authors that. My laughs more than excused it. Besides, there are cameo appearances in the story by some authors that I dearly love. And no, I place no significance whatsoever to the fact that the lead character’s initials are J.A. No, none at all.

About the coauthors: This was the first and last novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, longtime lover of books who, unfortunately for us who have enjoyed her book and wish for more, died in February. In an interview with NPR, Annie Barrows, niece of Mary Ann Shaffer and herself a published author, said that her aunt, when her health declined, asked her to help finish the book—which had already been sold by Shaffer—for publication. I include in this post images of two different book covers: the first for the book published in the US (The Dial Press, July 29, 2008), and the second for that published in the UK (Bloomsbury Publishing, April 8, 2008). You’ll notice that the US edition has both authors’ names, while the UK edition only has Shaffer’s name. I was just curious why that was.

Here is a review by Stevie Davies in The Guardian in case your interest has been piqued.