Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

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

Potato Peel Pie “Ridiculous title,” I muttered. “Too long. Convoluted. Downright silly.”

Despite the title, I picked it up. There must be few bookworms who haven’t heard about this slender novel, I certainly had. It took the book world by storm when it was first published last year after the death of its author, Mary Ann Shaffer. She died knowing that her novel had been sold successfully across the world and any final edits were in the capable hands of her niece Annie Barrows. This is a book that even the hardest critic seemed to take to their heart. It certainly hadn’t escaped my attention. And there it was, in crisp paperback with a glowing “3 for 2!” sticker. I was powerless to resist – despite a title that made my nose twitch.

So here begins a great love story because make no mistake this book swept me off my feet and stole my heart.

Written in epistolary form, this book is based on a coincidence. Dawsey Adams happens across a book once owned by Juliet Ashton and so begins her correspondence and friendship with the eponymous Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It opens in 1946 with Juliet promoting Izzy Biggerstaff Goes To War, a collection of her witty war-time columns.

Despite the fact that this book is written entirely in letters, Juliet is quickly drawn as she writes to her publisher Sidney Stark and her best friend, Sidney’s sister Sophie. Juliet is the sort of woman you will either love or hate (and your reaction to her will more than likely affect your reaction to the whole book). She’s warm and sparky, but lacks confidence and often feels awkward. She’s a scatty but tough heroine. She is delighted to receive a letter from Dawsey, even more delighted to think that one of the books she had to sell has found such a loving new owner. He writes because Guernsey has only just been freed from German occupation and he needs assistance in finding more books by his favourite author Charles Lamb. And so begins Juliet’s involvement with the Society – the stately Amelia Maugery, witchy Isola Pribby and Kit, the mysterious Elizabeth McKenna’s daughter.

Of course, not everyone will love this book as much as I and many others have. In fact I would go so far as calling it a “Marmite Book.” There will be those who will accuse it of being twee and stereotypical and I will accept that because yes, you’d have a point there. But there is something so joyous and warm and life-affirming about the stories told in these letters that I found it impossible to resist. In the aftermath of so much destruction and human suffering, it is heartening to see these people not only pull together to support one another, but open their arms and hearts willingly to an outsider. Something they do for both Juliet and Sidney.

This is a love story (and I don’t only refer to my ravishing here). It’s about loving life, loving books, art, poetry, loving your neighbour, your enemy and finding the best in people wherever you can. There are some awful scenes in this novel – revelations about the time people spent in prison camps and the punishments they suffered under occupation, but the overwhelming theme is that of the power of the human spirit. My only complaint about this book is that by the end it is taken over by the love-story and the discovery (I shall say no more) that the occupation is forgotten. Which is a shame because some of the best moments in the book refer to the occupation.

It is a book that almost drove this dyed-in-the-wool, written-through-me-like-a-stick-of-rock Londoner onto the next available mail boat to Guernsey.

And that ridiculous title? Oh that’s all part of its charm.

Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London, 2009. ISBN-10: 0747596689. 256pp.

14 comments on “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

  1. Lisa
    October 8, 2009

    Really enjoyed this review, Nikki. I suppose it was the ‘twee’ accusation that had been putting me off buying this one. However, joyous and life-affirming stories are few and far between in my current tbr pile, so I’m tempted to buy it just for that. Dagnammit, it’s going into my Book Depository basket. This blog is blimming bad for the bank balance (nice bit of alliteration there…) 😀

  2. Jackie
    October 8, 2009

    This book is huge in the States, it’s very popular with book discussion groups. I haven’t read it yet, but intend to, though I don’t usually like letter filled books, but maybe this one will be different, especially after that glowing review.
    The cover really captures the feeling of the book as you’ve described it.

  3. Nikki
    October 8, 2009

    I actually think that a little twee is good for you. Goodness knows that when I’m laid up ill, it’s not bleakness I need. I tend to read for my Nan’s copy of the People’s Friend! :-S

    So yes, be prepared for it to be cosy, but there are some dark moments – after all it does talk about the occupation. It’s so short and easy to read though that even if you utterly loathe it (and I’ve noticed it’s a bit of a Marmite book that way) you’ve not spent ages getting through it!

  4. Sam
    October 9, 2009

    I love the title!

    Inspiring review and i love epistalory novels – thanks!

  5. Mary
    October 9, 2009

    The reaction to this novel reminded me of the reaction to The Bridges of Madison County (which I hated, BTW) even though the novels sound nothing alike. I have to stop being so biased and judgemental about books!
    But I do like epistalory novels too.

  6. kimbofo
    October 10, 2009

    Oh-oh, this is one of those books that everyone loves but I thought it was terribly twee. It felt too contrived for my liking and there’s a decidedly patronising tone used throughout that really got up my nose. Here’s my review:

  7. Neil
    October 29, 2009


    We’ve created a Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society Map for your readers. Every comment from that includes a geographic location or mention of place is either pinned or marked. Hope this is of use to you readers.

  8. Nikki
    October 30, 2009

    Thanks for that, Neil, that’s very interesting!

    Sorry, kimbofo, I thought I had responded to your comment! I read your review (and re-read it just now) and although I loved the book I do think you make very valid comments. I think you’re right that there’s something quite American about the book, despite efforts to prevent it. I have enough distance to see that the book is by no means perfect. But I’ll still pick it up on blue days!

  9. David
    November 5, 2009

    Found my way here from Google, searching for a way to write the author(esses). What a shock to find that Mary Ann Shaffer is gone. The loss of a woman of great soul–obvious from this book–is saddening, and that is not to mention the dashing of my hopes that the characters in this book would live on in some kind of sequel–though I can’t imagine what kind.
    I haven’t finished reading the book (which my wife ran across in the library) yet, but I wanted merely to tell Ms. Shaffer that I can’t remember a book I’ve read in the last 40 years bringing tears to my eyes (I wouldn’t want to spoil any reader’s experience by saying why), that I saw moments of pure genius in so many of her characters’ understated observations, and that I hoped, already–though only in mid-book–to read more from her, if not to visit visit her, like Juliette, and learn what kind of life experience could lead to a work of this quality.

    I was about to close but decided to read kimbofo’s review (link above). I’m saddened by several of her (?) readers’ acquiescence to “higher authority” (as in “Obviously I won’t be reading this twaddle; I already suspected the book was overrated fluff.”) Beginning this post, I didn’t intend to digress into a review of a review, but I found her kimbofo’s comments to be terribly shallow and deserving of refutation. For instance: “I don’t appreciate having my intelligence insulted on every second page, as if I have never heard of the Second World War and the terrible deprivations and conditions that so many people were forced to endure. I know that children were airlifted to rural Britain, I know that people were sent to concentration camps, I know …” kimbofo forgets that a novel that takes place during WW II and has its characters relating personal (albeit fictional) experiences does not necessarily do so to be informative about the events of the war. It seems as though kimbofo would make WW II off limits for fiction writers, now that she herself (again the gender ?) is so well informed about it. In fact, kimbofo appears to raise the question of why even a historian should revisit this war, now that kimbofo has heard of it.

    I would have mentioned “40 years without tears” to Ms. Shaffer as evidence that I am not an incurable, sentimental romantic. I am glad to hear that so many others share my opinion of the book, and regret the loss to those who were dissuaded from reading it by negative reviews.

  10. Pingback: War on the Margins by Libby Cone « Vulpes Libris

  11. Brenda Curnow
    February 15, 2010

    Well said David in your remarks to kimbofo!!! Could’t have done it better.

    Thanks Vulpes Libris “I shall try to find War on the margins”

    My husband and I really enjoyed this lovely book. We didn’t want it to end. I knew very little about the occupation of the Channel Islands during the war years (too young) and now I am fascinated and plan to read more about these places. We have recommended it to our daughters and friends. We did not find it twee or patronizing!!!!I think what attracted me most was the title. It jumped out at me as I stood looking at it in the Library. It reminds me so much of “22 Charing Cross Road.” Another great book and if you missed it
    as a child or teenager “Dear Daddy long legs”(sadly out of print). I was so looking forward to another book by Mary. I was very disappointed and sad to hear of Mary’s death. She must have been a wonderful person as her humor and understanding of humans shone through. What a sad time she wrote about with such sensitivity and humor.

  12. Judy
    June 15, 2011

    Juliet Ashworth? Wasn’t it Juliet Ashton?

  13. niks87
    June 16, 2011

    Judy, you’re right. I have corrected the name. Thanks.

  14. Hilary
    February 29, 2012

    Well, I finally got around to reading this novel, and I want to thank you, Nikki for the perceptive empathy of your review, which gives me the room I need for this comment! I love Marmite, and I hated Juliet Ashton. Therefore I pretty much hated the book, because I think to love it you have to love her. I can’t entirely put my finger on what I didn’t like – she’s Doctor Fell, really. I suppose this made me somewhat hyper-critical of the book, but my subsequent nitpicks led me to the conclusion that there’s something inauthentic about Juliet. I yield to no-one in my love of Books and Reading and my belief in their value and power – but she seemed to be such a diva about all that – more about her than about them. Sorry – just working out in real time here what didn’t ring true for me. And I found the reliance on the author’s research into the horrors of the Occupation rather distasteful, because the descriptions that resulted are so underpowered. There is a novel to be written about that time, but this ain’t it.

    But I can fully understand the appeal, and I also know myself as a reader well enough to realise that, if I’d only ‘bought’ Juliet, that would have swept me past all the other stuff that made me uneasy. So, I side with kimbofo on the whole – but not with kimbofo’s commenters, as it is unfair to dismiss as twaddle something you haven’t read. Dismiss it as something you don’t think you want to read, but not as twaddle!

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