Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

For some reason this weeks book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, kept catching my eye. I think it was probably the title that caught my attention first, I don't know that I have ever seen that many words on the cover of a book before. During my trip to Nashville I noticed it in several different airport bookstores and gift shops, and of course at home among the handful of bookstores I frequent, and so finally this week I decided to relish in it. The authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, have written a delightful, poignant novel, rich with historical details and wonderful characters that you come to love, and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Along the way it's littered with rich descriptions about love, war and the immeasurable sustenance to be found in good books and good friends. It is an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary.

This epistolary novel opens in 1946 when London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton, a whimsical, intuitive heroine, is casting about, looking for her next book subject when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a man she’s never met, and a native of the island of Guernsey who has come across her name written inside a second hand book. As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, their fragile contact begins to grow, and she is soon drawn into the wonderfully eccentric world of this man, his friends, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. 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, eventually coming to know the brave and endearing people who survived the hardships. In addition to a fine story, this delightful book offers affirming messages about some of the most enduring forces in life—the power of the written word, the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In a world so vivid, populated with characters so utterly wonderful and enchanting, it was hard to imagine that they were not my real friends and neighbors. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society commemorates beautiful people who pass through our lives, and make us stronger during malevolent times. Shaffer's Guernsey characters step from the past, radiant with eccentricity and kindly humor. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity. It's a joy threading through the gentle humor of the islanders' stories, and a privilege to read about their small acts of heroism. The people of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society come together like milk and coffee, in order to survive the occupation. Grabbing hold of Shakespeare, Austen, and Bronte, The Society affirms the power of books to nourish people enduring hard times, and celebrates the power books have in bringing people together. "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive-- all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

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. Shaffer's writing, with its delicately offbeat, self-deprecating stylishness, is exquisitely turned, bearing a clear debt to Jane Austen. She shows, in addition, an uncanny ability to evoke a nostalgic portrayal of an era, miming its manners and mannerisms - not only in the reminders of blitzed London but also in recreating a culture that reveres books.

I bought this book without even looking inside, so until I had read the first couple pages I had no idea that the book was made up entirely of letters. To be completely honest, when I came to this realization, I made an audible groan, and actually contemplated putting the book back on my shelf. I was very skeptical on how a story was supposed to form, and how characters and scenery was supposed to be revealed and imagined through the treasure that is description. It would have been easy to put the book down and move onto the next, but I'm so glad I didn't. For if I had, I would have never experienced the indescribably unique characters, lessons such as "I think you learn more if you're laughing at the same time.", and a new respect for epistolary novels.

When I was young, before I had my own e-mail account, and before Facebook and Skype were worldwide phenomenon's, my Dad, who lived in Vancouver, would write me letters. So often while walking up to the front door where the rusty mailbox perched, I would experience this great anticipation. Had the mail man brought me and my Dad a little closer today, by delivering the handwritten words of my Dad right to my doorstep? Everybody knows the pure joy of receiving a letter in the mail amongst the mundane and avoidable bills and fliers, and unfortunately this is a craft that is quickly fading, perhaps only recognizable in the older generations. The truth is, is that receiving a handwritten letter from a friend or loved one is much more meaningful that opening up an animated greeting card over an e-mail. And so my tip for this week, is write someone a letter. Allow your story, thoughts, and love be a gift. A letter is a beautiful way for your words to be remembered and cherished over time. I still have a keepsake box dedicated to all the letters my Dad wrote me over the years, and I'm so glad I have them to look back on and share with my family.

“ 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.”

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