Sunday, June 21, 2009
January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb.
As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends -- and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society -- born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island -- boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.
Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.
Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
I'm not usually one to read epistolary novels, in the past they have not been my favorites, but I must take exception in the case of this one. It was fabulous, I simply loved it, and I think it was brilliantly written by way of letters back and forth between all the endearing main characters. Not only did the book tell a wonderful, poignant and heart warming story with a touch of humor - and tears, the setting is one that I did not even know about - the occupation of the island of Guernsey during World War II. I'm sorry to say (and I a history major in college!) was unaware of the occupation at all! Guernsey is one of the small isles that sits in the English Channel South of Weymouth, England and north of St. Malo, France. It's part of the English Crown, but Germany took it over and occupied it during World War II for five years. The rustic inhabitants of the island, armed with that indefatigable English fortitude, faced near starvation and many hardships during this time. But they survived and went on with their lives after the war. This is their story, as well as the story of the young woman that wants to write about them.
Juliet, the English authoress who starts up a correspondence with the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, has that wry English wit and self deprecating sense of humor about her. I took to her instantly. Although she considers herself a mousy spinster at thirty two years, she has a following as a columnist in England, and attracts the notice of one Markham Reynolds, American millionaire. He showers her with flowers and then asks her out to dinner. She puts him off at first, but he won't take no for an answer writing to her "You pick the evening - I'm entirely at your disposal." Who could resist that from a tall, dark and handsome man - a publisher no less! But, despite Mark's charms, Juliet is drawn to her Guernsey Islanders and cannot resist their siren call.
Juliet takes up her research and writing in earnest for an article that she's writing for the Times literary supplement that basically, in her words, is about how "reading keeps your from going gaga." Welcome to my world! Once she gets into the thick of it with her correspondence with her various Guernsey Literary Society friends, she decides to write about them and we read about all their different quirky, sometimes sad, sometimes humorous stories of how they coped with the occupation and how they began to read and get involved in the Society. Most of the stories are by accident and haphazard. I loved reading these anecdotes and the occupation and primarily the unfolding story of Elizabeth, one of the members of the Society. Elizabeth's story is the compelling drama throughout the novel, I laughed, I cried, it is memorable.
Another aspect of the book that interested me, a side story close to my own heart was the fact that most of the children on the island, just before the German occupation began, had to be sent to England for safe keeping. They had to leave their families, and it was a terrible decision for their families to make. Should they send their beloved children away, alone to face who knows what or keep them there on the island, with the very real certainty that the Germans were coming. A heartbreaking choice for anyone to face. My mother's family in NY sheltered and took care of a young English boy, Colin, who was the son of a colleague of my grandfather for five years during the war. His father asked my grandfather if he would take him to live with him in the States just before war broke out between England and Germany. My grandfather acquiesced immediately and Colin was transported with hundreds of other English school children by convoy, guarded by war ships to safety across the Atlantic. He became a member of my mother's family while in the States until he returned to England after the war and he will be forever like a brother to my mother and an uncle to me. But, I digress. Back to the story...
Juliet goes to the island herself before long and settles in as if she belongs there forever. She meets all of her friends and makes new friends as well. She becomes a surrogate mother to young four year old Kit, and before long, she develops a tendre for one of the island inhabitants. I won't say who or spoil the ending, I'm leaving a lot out, but it does end happpily, albeit bittersweet.
This book is chock full of wonderful little snapshots and stories and history, I highly recommend it for anyone, whether this is a time period that interests you or not. It's a feel good book and one that will stay with you. I wish I could go to Guernsey and meet all of these people myself! Don't miss it - it's a real gem! Many thanks to my friend Amy C at Romance Book Wyrm who read this book and recommended it to me and started this wonderful worldwide book journey, passing the book on from one person to the next. I will dutifuly pass the book on to the next person, but regret having to give it up. I loved it, and I will soon buy my own copy to keep forever on my bookshelf - it's that good!