Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mona Dy, a bosom buddy, coffee companion and my walking book catalog gave me a book for Christmas that became my first read for 2011. The book, The Guernsey and Potato Peel Pie Society, afforded me a delightful reading experience that eclipsed the repercussions of some bad news at the start of the New Year.

Written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the novel speaks of the complex nature of human beings, but at the same time, celebrates the enduring goodness and tenacity of the human spirit. Wrapped in humor and twined with tenderness the novel reminded me of the good things in life -- good books to read, great friends to trust, and keep, and a family to love and to come home to at the end of a harrowing day.

The story begins with Juliet Ashton, a writer, who attempted to survive the chaos and loss brought by World War II. She did manage to rise from the ashes, both internal and external, by establishing friendships and building relationships with members of a book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Its origin is explained in the book quite intriguingly and a recipe for the pie is included as well. From where I come from, we do eat potatoes, peeled and unpeeled. But a pie made of potato peelings could either be the product of the writer's imagination or consequences brought by the call of survival in a time of war. Either way, this information on the book club's beginnings piqued my interest to know more about Guernsey and its community. Apart from this, it is Shaffer’s epistolary approach to writing the novel that made a greater impact

What worked

The exchanges of letters between Juliet and her friends lent great description on the level of friendship and the degree of intimacy she has with them. The letters were used as instruments to gauge the mindset and emotional depth of every character. It is amazing how Shaffer successfully breathed life to each character through the letters. There were no narratives, no long exposition to introduce and explore the characters' conflicts and problems but the letters were enough. Each has a distinct and unique voice. 

It helped a lot that the characters talked about their favorite book. This added depth and texture to each character. They're all so interesting, I hoped they were real characters. My favorites, apart from Juliet are Sydney, Isola, Elizabeth and yes, Dawsy Adams -- Juliet's object of affection. Yes, Virginia, it is a romance novel too. It follows the tradition of Austen, tempered and restrained. At the background is the remnants of World War II where Juliet and Dawsy must pick up the pieces of their lives to build a new one.

Shaffer was a librarian, editor and had experience working in bookshops. She translated all these into the novel and the overall effect is fantastic. I felt her passion for the printed word and her strong belief in the role of the book as emissary of  culture and the arts.

What did not work

Sadly, Shaffer did not live to see the success of the novel. She died in February 2008. Annie Borrows, her niece, was instrumental in helping her finish the novel (which is actually a good thing). 

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