Tuesday, November 09, 2010

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

I'm here to tell you that if you've put off reading this book because you thought it was just twee ladies' book club fodder, you were absolutely right. It is completely put together to appeal to book clubs--a simple read about a bit of WII history that you may not have heard about, with a cast of characters who all did the best they could to get through the war and are trying to rebuild their lives.

It's pretty well written epistolary novel. In 1946, author Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a farmer from the Isle of Guernsey. He bought a book of Charles Lamb's essays secondhand from her collection and tracks her down through her name in the book. Juliet's flat was bombed in the Blitz and she lost all her books, and is thrilled to get a letter from someone who enjoys Lamb as much as she does and who has one of her personal books. Dawsey tells her about life in Guernesey during the war, when the islands were occupied by the Germans who cut them off from the outside world (no letters or papers were allowed in or out) and nearly starved them all. And then the whole freaking town starts writing to Juliet for a project about the sustaining power of reading that she's working on, and she back, and they tell her of their personal experiences and their great, clever, good friend Elizabeth McKenna who was sent to the concentration camps for helping a poor Polish prisoner of war, and is missing. And then Juliet goes to Guernsey to research a book, and it's all just LOVE.

So, I had a fair amount to totally Kerry problems with this book. The letters thing disguises the fact that it's all tell, not show, so it's a great way to disguise the lack of tension. There's no real plot, merely a bit of mystery about what happened to Elizabeth McKenna and who will Juliet marry, the pushy American, Dawsey, or her publisher Sidney. Then at the end there's some plot about the witch Isola's granny's letters to tie up some loose ends. So really, all things I hate in books,

After a while, I just got annoyed with how damn saintly everyone was, especially fucking Elizabeth McKenna. Yes, she has an affair with a German soldier, but it's True Love. And he's a Good German With A Conscience. And she a spunky champion of Good that everyone but the cartoonish villians loved. And she Helped Others, always, constantly, with her spunk. Sigh.

Oh, and once the reader finds out Sidney is gay, of course Juliet will marry Dawsey, no matter how thinly drawn he is. Marriage fixes everything, even to a guy who can't hold a decent conversation with you.

I don't think it helped that I went to see Connie Willis the Friday before I started reading this book. Her talk about her most recent book(s)* which combine her obsessive interest in WWII and her humanist views. All I could think of is how much better Connie Willis is at this sort of tale--she has bite in her characters and tales, not overly sentimental treacle.

*She said, "Yes, it was supposed to be one book. I handed in a manuscript that was about a thousand pages. Well, it took me 8 years to write it!"


Anne (in Reno) said...

I got sucked into it even though I knew it was cheese. And even though Elizabeth McKenna was so saintly I wanted to retch. I think the letter format suckered me, I'm usually not one for this type of book. I did like learning about Guernsey though.

But at least now I know to look for the new Connie Willis instead.

Kerry said...

There's a great review of the new Connie Willis work written by Jo Walton here.