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Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The title of the book is longwinded, but the book is equally captivated. The book explores the themes associated with readership, sheer exuberance of reading, and letter writing among readers and writers and readers vs. readers.  Just imagine that a book you once possessed has landed in the hands of another discerning reader. To your utmost surprise one day, you get a text message from the reader saying that he/she is in possession of your book and wants to connect. Of course you had scribbled your phone number in the book for reasons lost to you by now.

Based on the similar lines is the great novel: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Except that communications at the time the novel was set was limited to letters, telegrams and diary writing. So the entire novel is narrated through a series of letters, an art lost today or rather replaced by more sophisticated modes. At the heart of the novel is a book club accidentally formed by a bunch of ordinary people in Guernsey during the Second World War. Guernsey, history and travel fanatics might be aware, is a real place, one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel near the French coast.

Dawsey Adams, one of the members of the eponymously named book club, writes a letter to Juliet, a writer in London, saying he is in possession of her book on Charles Lamb the famous essayist. Juliet writes back saying she wants to know more about the intriguingly named book club. In her letter she adds,

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” I shouted aloud, “It is true.”

After that letters fly back and forth with multiple members of the society giving us a descriptive view of their life in Guernsey during war and what the members are reading.

Letters on readers discovering the much decorated and loved authors such as Charles Lamb, Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie are a treat to read. This is mixed with some tales of quirky readers who stick to reading just one book, or one author or only the book written by the readers themselves. There is also a piece on a man wanting to join the literary society because he is given to believe that books will help him woo a woman. How can such a book possibly go wrong?

At the same time, the novel delves into the personal lives of characters and depicts the impact of war on them. Starvation and the difficulty of finding basic a thing as soap during war is brought out powerfully. The writer, however, downplays the harshness of the war theme with the light and witty tone of her writing as the novel also explores how humanity triumphs in the face of hardships caused by war. Scenes of German enemy soldiers discreetly dropping potatoes on the streets for local children to pick are heartwarming.

There is also a great deal of romance where the mystery of who-loves-whom and who-will-eventually-end-up-with-whom keeps gently hanging throughout the book. And then there are beautiful lines on relationships and finding the right partner like this:

“I don't want to be married just to be married. I can't think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can't talk to, or worse, someone I can't be silent with.”

This is a book about the readers and the magic of reading. And one can’t again possibly go wrong in recommending this to our fraternity.

In the writer’s own words, “That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to 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.”


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