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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

To start off the new year, our group finally read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (herein GL3PS) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

First, let me set the stage for our unusal set up for this discussion. The table in our library's "Board Room" was being refinished and due to be returned in the morning on the day of the discussion (1/18).  Of course it was late and came just as I was reading the group some background information on Guernsey. So, picture 15 women with an average age of about 70 trying to move themselves, their books, and their chairs into a staff area near the periodicals storage to have a discussion.  To their credit, no one complained and we spent the first 30 minutes a bit put out, but otherwise fine.  I lightened the moon by saying what a perfect book this was for our situation.  The members of the GL3PS had to meet while being occupied by the Nazi's, so our temporary relocation was nothing compared to that.

Now on to the book.  Here is the official plot from the publisher:
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends --- and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society --- born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island --- boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
The first issue to tackle with this book is its style.  GL3PS is a novel in letters, otherwise known as an epistolary novel. Some pepople couldn't get past their dislike for this style.  But overall, the response to the use of letters to tell what one person called, "a group story," was positive.  We liked to see how each person was changed by those around them, and letters were an effective way to communicate this. People also enjoyed how although the letter writer was constantly changing, the plot didn't jump around. The letters went in order and we saw Juliet and the members of the literary society move on from the tragedies of war.

Also, we liked how the style reflected the time period.  This was a time when people wrote letters. A few participants talked about how not only is letter writing a lost art, but also we are losing a lot of our personal history as people and as families without old letters to go through.

Finally we loved the letters as they were used to develop the characters. Each letter writer had their own voice (in the audio they literally have a different voice); each character got a chance to present his or her personality to the reader.  For me personally, I fell in love with Isola through her letters toward the end of the novel.  She was adorable.

Many in the group were happy to finally read "that book with the crazy title." Once done they found it to be about many things.  Here is a list of some of the themes and issues we discussed:
  • We loved how Juliet served to show the power of "the listening writer."
  • We talked about books and their power.  How the right book in the right reader's hand can transform your life.
  • We spent time talking about how this novel reinforces the power of true friendship.
  • An interesting side conversation began about how terrible stress brings out the true personality of people.
  • We loved how this novel presented an "even picture of humanity." There are characters from the too good to be true to the very petty and nasty and all  in between.
  • This led to a spirited conversation about some specific characters.  We loved Juliet. Words used to describe her included, "spunky, empathetic, open, good sense, independent, plucky." Remy, the concentration camp survivor evoked the torture of the war for us.  As a literary device she also allowed Elizabeth's story to be completed; she gave closure to the group because they heard the story of Elizabeth's death from someone who was there. And on a lighter note, she makes Juliet realize that she really is in love with Dawsey.
  • Overall, we liked the hopefulness of this novel.  In the face of Nazi occupation, death of loved one, and the bleak post-war landscape, here is a story of good, decent people moving forward with a positive outlook.  We all agreed it was great advice for tough times.
By the way, we all want to read a book by Charles Lamb now.

At the end of the discuss I closed by asking each person to tell me what was most appealing about this novel to them personally.  Their choices with votes in after were: that is was about the power of books (4), the setting (1), or the characters  (8). So we loved the characters the most as a group.  All agreed they would suggest this book to friends and family, no matter their age.

Readalikes:  Two books that we have read in this book club are also excellent readalikes for GL3PS, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (click through to read about our discussions).

Another epistolary novel with a similar reading theme is Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.

Books about book clubs that may appeal to readers of GL3PS are Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik and The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. Both have humor with serious undertones, and are good for book discussion groups.

This novel also reminds me of the Elm Creek Quilters books by Jennifer Chiaverini. Here the group quilts instead of reads, but these are also multi-generational and hopeful stories.

For many more readalikes including nonfiction, check out this reading map my student Elizabeth did last semester.

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