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

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

Such a pity Mary Ann Shaffer is not around to enjoy her celebrity! Shaffer died in February of this year and thus missed her own miracle—best-sellerdom for a first book written by an already “mature” librarian, former bookseller, and unpublished, aspiring writer. The good news, however, is that her opus is engaging, ingenious and ahead of the publishing game.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, 288 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

Novel Letters

Such a pity Mary Ann Shaffer is not around to enjoy her celebrity! Shaffer died in February of this year and thus missed her own miracle—best-sellerdom for a first book written by an already “mature” librarian, former bookseller, and unpublished, aspiring writer. The good news, however, is that her opus is engaging, ingenious and ahead of the publishing game.

Not only is the novel bound to be a favorite of book clubs, it is paradoxically devoted to an oddly-designated book club in Guernsey, that of the title, a group invented on the spot by farmers and fishermen there when they were caught drunk after curfew, by their Nazi occupiers during the World War II.

Their winding tale develops as they successfully confound their German invaders and learn in the bargain how to amuse themselves by reading books.

Its heroine is a successful journalist and Londoner, Juliet Ashton, exhausted and devastated by her times, who has been burned out and left homeless by the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Her newspaper columns under the title, “Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War,” are newly-collected by her publisher as a book, which Juliet is now touring. And it is during these triumphant appearances that her ennui, her discontent with life, surfaces.

Shaffer, together with her niece, Annie Barrows (who joined her to help finish the book as Shaffer’s health declined) open the novel with their heroine informing her publisher, Sidney Stark, of the situation. That letter commences what is to become their novel about the war years upon Guernsey Island and the brutality of their Nazi occupiers.

Juliet reveals straight out on page 1 that despite the publisher’s firm making good money on her work, she simply can’t go on as she has:

“…my head and heart just aren’t in it. Dear as Issy Bickerstaff is—and was—to me, I don’t want to write anything else under that name. I don’t want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh—or at least chuckle during the war was no mean feat, but I don’t want to do it anymore….”

She is clearly seeking something altogether fresh. And we witness how oddly this next enthusiasm comes into being. Indeed, it evolves into an epistolary novel!

And that is suggested by a letter: this time from a complete stranger, Dawsey Adams, a farmer of Guernsey in those Channel Islands. His query is altogether innocent. He explains that he has Miss Ashton’s address because it is on the flyleaf of an old book that once belonged to her, “The Selected Essays of Elia,” written by the author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb.

He explains further that there were currently no bookstores to be found on Guernsey—the time is just after World War II—and he had the idea of writing to her for a favor. Could he perchance take the liberty of asking for her suggestion of the name of a bookshop in London where he might find some more of Lamb’s writings to be mailed to him there in Guernsey?

Adams goes on to confess his new love for Lamb’s work, which he had discovered quite by accident and which had managed “to make him laugh during the German Occupation,” “especially when he (Lamb) wrote about the roast pig.” Her correspondent adds that “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers….” Hence his current kinship with Mr. Lamb.

Indeed, the farmer’s letter had surprised and delighted Juliet since she too was a lover of Charles Lamb. Moreover, she marveled that he had addressed it to her former home, which no longer stood; yet somehow the letter had managed to reach her in her rented flat; better still, to cheer her out of her newly-dispirited state.

In fact, it was the latter’s additional offering about their odd-sounding book club that made our heroine just curious enough to write him back at once; and moreover to do so with a spontaneous confession in her note that she herself considered Lamb’s favorite phrase to be: “buz, buz, buz, bum, bum, bum, wheeze, wheeze, wheese, fen, fen, fen,tinky, tinky, tinky, cr’annnch!” (uttered while the author was soused.)

She generously dispatches the gift of a biography of Charles Lamb, as well as the news that she has placed an order for his Selected Letters too, in which he might find more of that particular nonsense of Lamb’s she often enjoyed.

So does this epistolary novel embark. Our heroine is drawn into the life of Dawsey Adams and his many literary companions on Guernsey (who write to her as well with particulars of how they managed to survive their years under the Germans). And Juliet Ashton’s voice carries her own sardonic tone as she also communicates with publisher and friends by letter.

Thus do these authors engage us in their storytelling, their sharp character development via the several voices we hear loudly sounding off to our heroine. Yet this is but a beginning for these novelists. They are more ambitious still. Shaffer and Barrows are actually talking books here, to booklovers and readers everywhere, above all, they are talking to writers. Issy Biggerstaff himself, the subject of Juliet Ashton’s newspaper columns, goes back to a figure invented long ago by Jonathan Swift (not, as the authors claim, to Joseph Addison, who actually borrowed that name from his friend Swift’s satires to use in his magazine, The Tattler).

So we’re immediately entangled here not only with Charles Lamb, but with the lively and often snarky opinions proffered by her Guernsey correspondents on writers as varied as the Bronte sisters, Thomas Carlyle, Wilfred Owen, William Wordsworth, and Jane Austen, among others.

We see further evidence of this preoccupation when later on in the novel and out of the blue, one character, Isola Prissy, introduces her Granny ‘Pheen’s mysterious letters, those she had had in her early youth from a “kind stranger” who had once stopped his carriage on the road when he noted the little girl sitting there alone and weeping. They kept coming as comfort from him when he learned of the harsh death of her beloved cat at the hands of her cruel father. The letters were kept, Isola reports, in a tin biscuit over the years, from which Granny ‘Pheen had often read to her young granddaughter as bedtime stories.

When Juliet Ashton subsequently examines them, she notes the odd signature upon every one, “O.F.O’F.W.W.” and wonders to her publisher, astonished and out loud, “Could it possibly be that Isola has inherited eight letters written by Oscar Wilde?” She next tells him she is “beside myself” over the possibility! And then, fills us in with the scholarly information that Wilde’s full name was the “preposterous” Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Will Wilde! All of which drives her to ask of her publisher to find out whether Wilde had actually ever been over to Guernsey?

There is a breathless quality to the pacing of Shaffer and Barrows’ novel. It never drags: and although this might seem a quibble, what did occur to this reader—more than once while reading—was to demand—with Beaumont and Fletcher—that they “plot me no plots!”

Certainly, the author’s account of Guernsey life under the Nazi yoke might have sufficed for the opus, with its horrific details about the deliberate starvation of young slave-laborers, Polish prisoners known as the “Todt workers,” to say nothing of their depiction of the deprivation of the islanders of their entire crops, year after year, to starve them as well. Or, consider the touchingly described scenes of the heroism these Guernsey islanders displayed in the face of such an enemy together with the brutal treatment they were given when arrested.

In the life and times of one Elizabeth McKenna alone, they have managed to give us a heroic portrait of a remarkable figure whose her every action proves true to her neighbors and friends on the island, whose presence and influence is ever felt by Guernsey folk (a character who never even appears in the book!).

One further cavil: In a work whose tone is so clever, whose voice is one tongue-glued in cheek—too often their tale teetered at the brink. At such instances, one felt in danger of its plunging into treacle, drowning in saccharine—so goody-goody and pat seemed their characterizations.

But no matter. While they can boast of a heroine who approaches a Beginners Cook Book for Girl Guides and calls it “just the thing for her” because its Guernsey writer commences with the advice, “when adding eggs break the shells first,” these novelists need have little fear. They can count on best-sellerdom all the way!

I hold an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a Master of Arts from Columbia University. I have had an extensive career in writing, editing and journalism, served as Features Editor for SEVENTEEN MAGAZINE, Research Editor for ENCYCLOPEDIA AMERICANA, Publications Director for the University of Michigan's INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH, Arts Editor for LA WEST MAGAZINE, and subsequently free-lanced articles for magazines and papers throughout the nation. hangzhou bay bridge I have also taught Humanities at UCLA to technical and engineering students to broaden their approach to their technological world. I served as Editorial Consultant for social scientists and anthropologists at the University of Southern California's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, to produce their academic articles and books.



  1. France

    March 29, 2012 at 3:08 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was fun to see the characters develop as you read each letter and response. A very quick read and so entertaining I hated to put it down.

  2. Marguio

    February 19, 2012 at 5:13 am

    Love it! And I’m bit excited about the movie adaptation billing Kate Winslet. I think she’s the best option out there for the role of Juliet. And maybe an Oscar again? why not!

  3. N. Lundeen

    January 18, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Well, it is unusual that’s for sure. I found it easy to read but some
    what difficult to keep a consistent “read” of the characters as the
    “letters” jump about, here and there.
    I would have preferred a novel type book with consistent characters.
    However, on the whole the novelty of the book made it interesting,
    but not something I would care to re-visit.

  4. Barbara Duffy

    October 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    The lure and pull of this wonderful novel propelled my friend and I to Guernsey this fall, and we loved it! Our taxi driver told us the book’s stories were “mostly true” and we saw many of the places that were written about in the book. It is a beautiful country, and the legacy of the occupation and its horrors lingers strongly on the island today.

  5. Serene

    April 20, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    This book is a wonderful, wonderful read. I had borrowed this book from the library because it had on the cover, a bit of review from the Sunday Telegraph that said ‘When was the last time you read a book that made you feel really good?’ And I thought, ‘Hmmm, it’s been a long time!’

    And you know, it does! It does make you feel really, really good. A book that comes alive as you read it, makes you laugh, makes you thoughtful and has wonderful characters in it who become your dear friends and when it’s finished, you just want to jump into the next boat to Guernsey…..

  6. Kate F

    February 6, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    For anyone wanted more background on this excellent read, get hold of “Island Madness” by Tim Binding.
    I quote: “Binding captures the essence of life under occupation with fine description of character and a taut plot … This is high-class fiction: tense, compassionate, surprise and moving.
    Reviewed by Catherine Pepinster, Independent on Sunday.

  7. Didimoe

    January 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    I totally loved this book. It brought me to tears, made me laugh and just made me feel sooooooo alive.

    Thank you Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows for your gift.

    Mary Ann left a gift of love that will always have a place in my heart.

    I believe this book has made me a better person and I definitely appreciate life more.

  8. Helen G

    December 3, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Imaginative and historically accurate, I came across this lovely book as a result of having read another book by a first time writer, Gwen Southgate, a now 81 year old lady living in NJ. Gwen’s book Coin Street Chronicles, is a memoir of a childhood growing up in London in the 1930s and 1940s with extraordinary detailed memory and gift for writing. It leaves in the imagination such a clear picture, at times enchanting, at times sad, sometime funny, as the Guernsey book does.

  9. chazz jorflin

    November 8, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    BEANS!!!!!! R GOOD!!

  10. Phyllis

    October 20, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    A friend loaned me this book–so charming and engaging, I relished every page.

    Just the idea of letter-writing has such strong appeal for me; in an era of instant everything, the thought of putting pen to paper and having a thoughtful time connecting with a friend is so refreshing and completely real.

    Reminded me a bit of the letter-writing in the Griffin and Sabine books, which I also thought were very clever and engaging (and really terrific art!).

  11. Julia Catherine Dawson

    September 2, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Sorry I should use spell check more often…….I ofcourse meant to say ‘That Special Person’

    Whoops – Julia

  12. Julia Catherine Dawson

    September 2, 2010 at 7:49 am

    I have this book so much that it was finished in one day.
    Then passed it to my daughter who also read it in one day.

    I so would have loved to meet these’people’. I have started writing my name in books I give away hoping to meet that specail person!!!!

  13. Max Johnson

    June 29, 2010 at 6:57 am

    I’m a Brit, male and I liked the book. Mostly! I thought the device of using letters to unfold the narrative worked well, and for most of the book the letters were used cleverly to alter the mood and pace. I liked the unusual setting, and the idea of using different styles of writing to introduce different characters to the stage. I was pleased that this little corner of the War, where there was no American presence was written about by an American, because that is unusual.
    However, I thought it a bit naive in places. For example, No Brit would have expressed surprise that it was illegal to keep an un-registered pig. That was required on the British mainland, let alone occupied Guernsey. Rationing was severe, but I felt that the deprivation on the Channel Islands was rather understated. They were starving. I felt that the Islanders tended to speak with the same, rather quirky, yokel voice. I understand that this helped to underline the paradox of an unsophisticated, provincial community suddenly reading and critisising Seneca and Yates in such a sophisticated way! I just felt that they all seemed to be the same eccentric person after a while. I agree that Pride And Prejudice was knocking rather loudly at the door but as someone else pointed out, it could have been intentional (Isola actually mentions it at the end of the book), and maybe not responding to it is a ‘bloke’ thing. I thought that the pace became very uneven towards the end (for perhaps obvious reasons). I thought that Elizabeth, whom we never meet but is at the centre of nearly every plot-line was used to very clever effect (although in reality she would have been villified by the community and after Liberation, had she survived, would probably have been literally tarred and feathered as a ‘Jerry Bag’). So, for me, it was something of a curate’s egg.
    Apologies for taking up so much space – I really enjoyed it!

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