Why did I think that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a feisty-woman story like The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood? Why, based on nothing but the title, did I decide that this was one of those books that would be beloved by art teachers and your mom’s friends and the women on the View? I’ve done this before, enough times that I could probably start tagging posts How My Vague and Uninformed Impressions of Books I Haven’t Read Are Completely Wrong. I have no idea where I got my Ya-Ya impression, but this is not one of those books. I avoided it for years but when I finally read it, almost by accident while trapped on a plane, I loved it.
Okay, here’s what this book is actually about: during World War II the Germans occupied the Channel Islands, which are these tiny little islands that lie between England and France. They’re part of the British Commonwealth, but not technically part of the United Kingdom–I think of them as sort of like the British Puerto Rico. Anyway, during the war the British government didn’t have the resources/chose not to defend them, so the Germans moved in early in the war and assumed that this would be their first step towards occupying England. That obviously didn’t happen, but the people who lived on the islands spent nearly five years under German rule and were not allowed to have any communication with the outside world during that time. This story takes place after the war and occupation have ended when a young London writer, looking for something new and meaningful to do, starts corresponding with a group of islanders. She encourages her new friends to tell their stories about life under the occupation, but she also gets caught up in their present-day activities and her own efforts to move on from the war.
As a WWII history nerd, I appreciated reading about a bit of the war that I didn’t know much about, and I am fascinated by the post-war period in Britain, so I liked that part as well. In the U.S. we tend to think of the late 1940s and into the 1950s as boom years, but those were very austere times in Britain. Sugar was rationed until 1953! Meat until 1954! It was a whole different world and I think this book nicely captures the mixed feeling people had at the time–thrilled that the war was over, but tired and a little overwhelmed by the rebuilding. But this isn’t really a typical WW II book–overall, it ends up being more charming than traumatic. First, since it takes place after the war has ended, you hear about what people experienced but you’re not living it with them–there’s a sense of remove. And second, the book is told in epistolary format, meaning that the whole thing is made up of letters and telegrams sent back and forth between the various characters, so it’s got this sort of delightfully chatty style. More than anything else it reminds me of 84, Charing Cross Road, another British post-WWII epistolary story. (If you’ve never read 84, Charing Cross Road, forgot all this other stuff and go read it immediately. It’s wonderful, and if nothing else it can serve as an example of how astoundingly much our world has changed in 60 years.) Look, Nazis are Nazis and there are definitely upsetting parts in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I felt hopeful when I finished this book and that is something than can be hard to find.
This just put two new books on my to-read list, since I hadn’t even heard of 84, Charing Cross Road before this.
Oh man, I finally read this and it was fabulous! It also makes me want to read “Letters of Seneca” the only book that one of the characters reads and re-reads for all of his literary society presentations.