So, I’m working on a couple of things and have pitches out for more, but when I went to the library, I picked up a bestseller from a while ago that a lot of people loved and that I refused to read then on the logically hollow premise that if everyone agreed on something, I wouldn’t. I’m talking about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. So, if you’ve been in a sensory-deprivation chamber the past couple of years and haven’t heard of this novel (and if you don’t read, you might as well live in one, no), read on.
WWII has just ended, and London singleton Bridget Jones, I mean, Juliet Ashton is in search of a story. When she receives a letter from a Guernsey farmer Dawsey mentioning a Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in passing, she’s intrigued enough to strike up a correspondence with the members of the society. (This is an epistolary novel except for the last part, which features a diary.) Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans during the war, turns out to harbor an unusually colorful assortment of inhabitants, and Juliet realizes that their experiences with literature and war would make a remarkable story. Meanwhile, she’s being wooed by a rich and handsome American, who isn’t exactly chuffed when she decides to go visit Guernsey, where all these interesting people live.
The love triangle is predictable, but that’s the case with most love stories, and I think there’s pleasure to be had in reading a romance that adeptly treads familiar terrain. There’s much to enjoy in this book–the humor is lovely, very British. The initial correspondence between Juliet and Dawsey is all about books, at a time when books are precious and rare and treasured by the public. Sigh. Actually, the first half, where we’re introduced to a cast of literary people who often pepper their letters with wonderful epigrams about books and reading, is nigh perfect. The second half, where Juliet visits Guernsey, is much more sentimental and uplifting, and has a chicklit-ish feel.
And that’s probably why I didn’t like this book unreservedly–deliberate uplift mostly seems like a lot of hot air to me. Although there is indeed tragedy (Germans! Hitler!), the positivity never dips. Charming, yes, but the characters are quite unbelievable. The Guernsey cows must produce the milk of human kindness, because everyone is impossibly good. The one not-so-nice character’s nasty behavior has a blazing arrow posting to her batty fundamentalist Christian beliefs; the rest radiate broadmindedness and compassion and strength, and oh, all of them have a wonderful sense of humor, like to take long walks on the beach, love children and dogs… They are completely non-judgemental about one character’s relationship with a (good!) German soldier and her illegitimate child, and another’s homosexuality.
Reading this book was akin to hanging out with a tiny baby–I went awww, and felt the warm fuzzies, but after a while, started longing for adult company. It seems mean-spirited to write a single negative sentence about an obviously well-intentioned and tenderly nurtured novel (see baby, above) by two accomplished writers, especially when one of them (Mary Ann Shaffer) is no more, but there’s no real attempt to tell us something about people (and their messy needy gory motivations and behavior) that we didn’t know before. And the latter is something I demand from character-driven novels for adults. But people look for different things from their reading. And many find tiny babies endlessly fascinating. The film of the book is out next year, directed by Kenneth Branagh and with Kate Winslet as Juliet. I love escapist pastoral films, and I’m looking forward to this one very much indeed.