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The witty pie turned into gooey mashed potatoes

January 19, 2011 14 comments

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

What a disappointment! This book sounded so funny and lovely!

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society is based on a good idea.

London, 1946. Juliet Ashton is travelling the country to meet the readers of her recently published book Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War. It is the gathering of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the war under the penname of Izzy Biggerstaff. Her publisher is directed by her dear friend Sydney, whose sister, Sophie, lives in Scotland and has been friend with Juliet since boarding school. The three of them are the first circle of pen pals.

On Guernsey Island, Dawsey Adams happens to read a book by Charles Lamb who once belonged to Juliet. He writes to Juliet to ask for a favour: since there isn’t any bookstore on Guernsey anymore, would she be so kind as to send him another book by Charles Lamb? Touched by his request, Juliet provides him with another book and starts corresponding with him.

That’s how she first hears of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This literary salon was created during the war, out of fear. Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII. Nothing new for a French reader, everything was pretty much the same in France during those years: hunger, fear, cold, curfew, troops, women sleeping with the enemy by interest, genuine love stories with German officers.

Like in France, livestock was thoroughly listed and some Guernsey neighbours tricked out the Germans to withdraw a swine from them. They throw a party to eat this unexpected meat and forget the curfew. As walk home after the feast, they are caught by the Germans, wandering after curfew. One member of the group, Elizabeth boldly lies and tells they had a literary meeting and forgot the time while talking about books. The Germans buy it and the next morning, the neighbours, led by Elizabeth, buy as much books as possible and start the literary circle for real, to keep the pretence.

Letters fly between Juliet and the Guernsey friends. In the second part, Juliet ends up leaving London for Guernsey to write her new book and meet her pen-friends. Unfortunately, the strongest personality, Elizabeth, is missing, as she has been sent to a prisoner camp on the continent for having protected a Todt worker. Follow then the description of her life in Guernsey, anecdotes about the German occupation, etc.

There are so many goods ideas in this book that it’s even more disappointing that they have been wasted. Elizabeth could have been a more central character as her personality and her actions influenced other people’s life. It is always strong in a book when an important character is there despite her absence. I’m thinking for example of Lydia, in Rebecca Connell’s The Art of Losing.

I would have liked to read Sophie’s letters as well. I think Juliet should have stayed in London and stick to writing letters to Guernsey; it would have been more powerful. And the literary meetings are disappointing. The first part raised my expectations. I expected to read more on books and the characters’ reactions to them.

I’ve read that Mary Ann Schaffer’s health declined and as she knew she wouldn’t have the strength to finish her book, she asked her niece Annie Barrow to complete it. I wonder where Mary Ann Schaffer stopped writing. If she wrote the first part and Annie Barrow the second part, it would explain the differences between the two.

The first part is lovely. The letters addressed by Juliet to Sydney and Sophie, describing her love for literature and her life in London are tender, funny and witty. There are interesting thoughts on how individuals recover from a war, if they recover at all. The early correspondence between Guernsey inhabitants and Juliet is nicely put.

The second part is goofy. Juliet takes a boat to Guernsey to write a book about the German occupation of the island. It seems all the possible clichés are there: a lonely shy and reliable Dawsey – Naming him George would have been too obvious – , an illegitimate child born from the love affair between Elizabeth and a decent German officer, orphans, an eccentric middle-aged lady with a golden heart.

The description of the occupation goes on. The predictable love story between Juliet and Dawsey happens with all the peripetia of romantic comedies. No, Juliet isn’t in love with Sydney since he’s gay. No, Dawsey isn’t in love with Remy, the French woman the literary society welcomes to Guernsey. The end is absurdly “Austenian”.

Well, what could have been a good book turns into a silly romance.

I can’t resist reporting the description of THE French woman in this book: stylish, practical and bold.

“Remy, for all she’s so frail and thin, manages to look stylish at every turn. What is it about French women?”

“Remy, like most Frenchwomen, is practical”.

“I would tell her of his affections, and then she, being French, would know what to do. She would let him know she’d find favour in his suit”

 

I’d never thought that my being practical came from my nationality. As for stylish and bold, I’m not the best judge. But this, added to Rebecca Connell telling me that my Italian features look exotic, makes me think I should have spent an Erasmus year in England. It would have been fun.

The positive point is that I’d never heard of Charles Lamb before. At least I will have learnt something, for which I’m always grateful. My opinion isn’t at all representative of the reviews. It is rated 4,5 stars on Amazon by almost 1400 reviewers.

Instead of reading The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, you might want to read the wonderful Journal à quatre mains written by Benoîte et Flora Groult. I think it has been translated as Diary in Duo. THIS is worth reading. It is autobiographical and composed of extracts from Benoîte and Flora’s diaries during WWII in Paris. If you want to know how it felt to be a teenager in Paris from 1940 to 1945, it’s witty and insightful. For men who’d be interested in understanding what it is to be a teenage girl, it’s pretty accurate.

Here is a teaser. Benoîte writes about her suitor Pasquale, who wants to sleep with her:

En me quittant, Pasquale dit « Vous êtes mignonne à croquer » J’en reste pantoise. Serait-il idiot ? S’il m’arrive d’être croquée par un homme, je compte bien lui rester sur l’estomac! Je ne suis pas une bêtise de Cambrai qu’on suce et qui fond sous la langue. » When leaving me, Pasquale says ‘You’re so lovely I would eat you’. I’m flabbergasted. Is he dumb? If I am to be eaten by a man, I hope I’ll weigh heavily on his stomach! I am not a Cambrai humbug one sucks and that melts under the tongue. (1)

(1) NB: “être mignonne à croquer” is the French expression to say “to be as lovely as a picture”. I meant to keep the food metaphor so I didn’t use it.

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