After watching the Netflix adaptation a couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading the book this past week, and I’m glad I did. While the Netflix version is fine, now that I’ve read the book, I realize why it struck me as only just okay; while it captures the book’s charm, it rushes things terribly. It makes the events of the story appear to take place over a maybe two-week holiday, whereas the book spans nearly a year’s worth of correspondence, so it definitely shows more satisfying character & relationship development.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society introduces us to Juliet Ashton, a writer in the midst of a book tour in 1946 London. Her interest is piqued when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer on the island of Guernsey, who is in possession of a book she once owned and would like to be put in contact with a bookshop where he can purchase more from the same author. He explains that, due to the German occupation of the island during the war, there are no longer bookshops on Guernsey. Juliet is eager to help a fellow book-lover, and the two begin corresponding. As Juliet learns more about Dawsey’s experiences during the occupation, she asks if she could possibly write about it—particularly about the book club Dawsey’s neighbors formed, all in an effort to hide a roast-pig dinner from the Nazis. And so begins her correspondence with the rest of the Society’s membership.
This is an epistolary novel, told completely in letters and telegrams, sorted into two parts. Part One covers Juliet in London and on tour, with letters between herself and the islanders as she gathers information. Part Two follows Juliet to Guernsey to meet her new friends and experience their island firsthand, with most of the letters between herself and her editor, Sidney. Because of this, I found Part One to be more compelling than Part Two, mostly because the voices in the letters are more varied, allowing for a more colorful picture to emerge. Once Juliet goes to Guernsey, we hear more about the people of Guernsey rather than from them.
This is a story about simple joys, like reading and fellowship, and how dear those things can be when so much else has been stripped away. But even though the story comes from a dark period in Guernsey’s history, it never lingers on that darkness, keeping the tone much lighter than what you might expect from a WWII novel. As much as it touches on the experiences of the islanders, the story is as much, if not more so, about Juliet, and how she comes to find not only kindred spirits, but herself, in unexpected ways.
To my recollection, this is the first epistolary novel I’ve read, and I was unsure how I would react to the format. In this instance, it works, though I don’t know that the story wouldn’t have worked just as well in a more traditional narrative form. It did, however, make me very much want letter-writing to be a thing again! Email and texting are convenient, but there’s something about letter-writing that seems so much more intimate.
All in all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. If you love books and you’re in need of something sweet and charming to lift your spirits, I recommend giving The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a try.