Sunday 12 December 2010

Shaffer, Mary Ann & Barrows, Annie "The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society"

Shaffer, Mary Ann & Barrows, Annie "The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society" - 2008

One of our latest book club reads.

When I first started this, I thought it was a very superficial book but it grew on me quite quickly. A novel about the history of the island of Guernsey during World War II, how the war affects people, often in a bad way and sometimes in a good one, about friendship and people standing up for each other, a book about people getting together to share their love for literature and their need for communication, and food, about how people can get creative when in need, a story that shows how people were getting along in pre-internet and pre-mobile phone times, even in pre-phone times. People actually sat down and wrote letters, we saw how beautiful letter writing is and how it teaches us patience.

I really like this book, it’s a quick and easy read with a good message, lively characters, interesting accounts, humoristic, emotional, very descriptive.

We discussed this in our international book club in October 2010.

From the back cover:

"'I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.' 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 discussed this book again ten years later with our international online book club in September 2020. The members loved it just as much.

Some of the comments:

•    I absolutely loved the book. It was wonderfully written and felt really warm, funny, interesting, heartbreaking, showing horrifying historical things in a more local setting. I used to write letters as a child so liked the writing style and storytelling way.
Same here, that might be the reason why I love epistolary books so much.

•    I also felt very much historical connection, for example I visited Auschwitz some years ago and had grandparents fighting in the war and grew up learning about it. It gave me lots to think and feel about. In a nice way, thankfully, as I am too sensitive to read books about war and suffering otherwise.
I think it is extremely important that we read about war and suffering, even though I understand those who can't. But it hopefully helps us to never forget and repeat history.

•    One thing I keep wondering about is why I could only in my mind see it as a very small village only, while it supposedly was a community of 42,000 people. Maybe it was that I felt very close to the reading group and their connection through books which reminded me of myself raiding my grandparents' shelves for old books when visiting. But I know it was a much bigger place, with much differences in how people coped with the situation, starvation, terrors, some turning on neighbors, some befriending the "enemy".
I suppose we all think of the Channel Islands as quite small and therefore, the communities can't be large. Also, even in a large place, in a situation like this, people usually share their private thoughts only in very small groups.

•    Another thing that seemed strange, was how it felt strange that the time difference portrayed in the book between the war and the writing of the letters and the time Juliet spent in Guernsey, was so short. It felt more like the writers were telling of a past that they had already started healing from. While I know no one can heal from war experiences in a year or two, no forests regrow or supplies be plentiful so fast.
This might be due to the fact that the book and therefore the letters were written after such a long time. If it had been written by the protagonists at the time, we might have seen different feelings.

•    Overall, really much to think about in a really enjoyable way. I also really liked the movie but would absolutely say the book is better.
Definitely. Although the movie really is not bad.

•    One of the best books I have read.
I couldn't agree more.

* * *

See more comments on my ThrowbackThursday post in 2021.


  1. One of my favorite books. Loved the characters and writing style. Even with the sad subject matter of the atrocities of war and the hardships everyone endured, it was not a depressing book. My book club gave it a thumbs-up.

  2. Same here. We were all very sad that the author died and this is the only book she has ever written. So sad.

    1. Great review, Marianne. I was also soooo sad when I realized the author died and couldn't write other books. Also, she didn't get to see how the book was received by so many people.

    2. I know. What a shame. The book was finished by her niece, Annie Barrows, and she has written her own books but they seem quite chick-lit-ty to me and that's not my type of genre.