Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Guernsey: A tax haven that's home to a delightful cast of characters

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
When listening to the audiobook of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which I highly recommend), I often thought, "This would make a fantastic costume drama for the BBC, possibly with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench playing two of the busybudy but entirely well-meaning islanders."

And it would.  In fact, I would be surprised if no one has bought the movie rights to this book and if Judi Dench isn't on the list of people shortlisted to play Esola.

This book is such a treat.  And when I say "treat," I mean the very sweet, hurts your teeth kind.  It reminded me a bit of Anne of Green Gables because everyone in it is just so well-meaning and kind and wonderful except for some people who really are just too bumbling and ridiculous to be taken very seriously.

Is it a character flaw to like a book a lot on every level but not love it because you think it is TOO PERFECT?  Probably.  But that's the way I am!  I can't help it.  I admit there were times when this woman Elizabeth was being described as saving yet another person from death or despair or loneliness, and I just rolled my eyes because seriously, this Elizabeth woman seemed too good to be true.

Who is Elizabeth, you ask?  Well, let me tell you.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set just after the end of WWII.  Juliet is an author looking for a new book idea after the wild success of her wartime stories centered on the fictional Izzie Bickerstaff.  One day, she receives a letter from Adam Dawsey, a farmer on Guernsey who asks her to help him find books by Charles Lamb so that he can discuss them at a future meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Juliet agrees and soon becomes pen pals with all the members of the society.  Every one of them tells her a story about its founder, Elizabeth McKenna, who had a lovely smile and was kind to everyone and resourceful at all hours of the day.  Juliet can't wait to meet this wonderful woman, but Elizabeth was taken prisoner during the war and hasn't returned.  Juliet decides to visit Guernsey to meet her friends and get more material for her book, and the people she meets and stories she hears make her so happy that she will never look back on her old life.

OK, so really, this was a really cute book to read.  The audiobook version was wonderful.  There were different people playing the parts of all the characters (which is much easier to follow when every letter is dated chronologically and introduced clearly with "From X to Y").  And every character had such a distinct voice and personality.  Really, it was these fun and lovely characters that made this book such a success, I think.  They're so alive and bright and wonderful it's hard not to fall in love with them!

But that's what's so weird about this book, too.  Guernsey had just gotten out from under years of Nazi occupation, with people starving and isolated from the rest of the world on this tiny, tiny island that was very vulnerable on all sides.  And yet, they all seemed so happy!

That's not strictly fair - throughout the book, you hear much more about the hardships the islanders faced, but they all seem to have gotten over them pretty quickly, at least enough to continue bustling about the island making cottages ready for guests and sharing wonderful stories about Saint Elizabeth McKenna.  Perhaps the "stiff upper lips" and "Keep calm and carry on" mentality really struck home over in Guernsey.

Elizabeth McKenna, whom we get to know gradually over the course of many letters and reminiscences, is the thing that made this book fall just a tiny bit flat for me.  I really, really liked it, don't get me wrong.  It was frothy and fun and just so great to listen to on miserable commutes in cold rain for days on end.  But Elizabeth... I mean, no one ever said anything bad about her.  Not even bad - no one ever said anything about her that wasn't absolutely amazing.  She was a hero in every single scene, always knowing just what to say or do to infinitely improve a situation.  It would have been easier to believe if she had a jealous streak or was clumsy or sometimes made a snarky comment.  But NEVER.

So fine, I admit it - I really liked this book but found it just a little too Pleasantville for my tastes.  If only there had been a flaw in someone's character (really, not even just Elizabeth's - anyone's), I think it would have been even more enjoyable.  But hey, sometimes bubble gum and cotton candy are just what you want :-)


  1. I really want to read this one. I am glad you liked it, even if the characters were a little too perfect. Sometimes that really works for a book and it sounds like that is the case here.

  2. I have wanted to read this one for a long time, and I already knew it was kind of saccharine, but I was willing to take the chance for a great story. It sounds like I would enjoy this one and really get a lot out of it. Thanks for your non-sugarcoated review ;) It was a lot of fun to read.

  3. I did like it, a lot :D And yes why aren't they making a movie?

  4. Ha, I think they are making a movie of this. Branagh's set to direct it and I think I saw Kate Winslet's name is attached to it somewhere...

    It's interesting that you say that the characters all had different voices. When I read it, I was struck with a completely opposite feeling - all the letters (more or less) seemed to have a similar voice and diction and vocab. There were some differences, but it felt to me as if there ought to be more differences simply because it's in epistolary form. Maybe trying the audio version would help.

    And I get what you mean about it being too sweet. I actually liked the sweetness, but it seemed kind of jarring considering the time it was set in. But it has a charm to it that makes me love the book :)

  5. Anonymous4/23/2013

    I enjoyed this book and especially the witty voice of the main character. But I am completely with you regarding the saintly Elizabeth McKenna. She was too perfect, and if I recall correctly, somewhat anachronistically perfect.

  6. Listening to this book would be quite a treat. Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in a BBC production would be brilliant! I don't usually like books where most of the characters are too perfect, but it is kind nice after you've read something really heavy.

  7. Anonymous4/24/2013

    Mmmmm, I don't know, I think you could make a case that Elizabeth was the kind of person who was best in hardship. You know? Like that in regular life she could probably be really, really mean; and being in the shitty situation she was in brought out the best in her -- problem-solving and bravery and defending strangers. That's how I always imagine her.

  8. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. This was actually very different from my usual tastes in books and I usually don't like books which are too sunny. But for some reason, it hooked me in.

  9. I totally understand what you mean. I had the same feeling when I read this book. I LOVED it but it was a bit too perfect. Ha! I guess there could be worse things for a book to be than perfect. I love the reference to Anne of Green Gables because I totally get that feeling. But like AGG, Guernsey is one of those places that now that I've read the book I want to visit.

  10. Crap, now I really want this on next season of Masterpiece - right after Downton Abbey, season 4! Aarti, you are a genius!

  11. "I admit there were times when this woman Elizabeth was being described as saving yet another person from death or despair or loneliness, and I just rolled my eyes because seriously, this Elizabeth woman seemed too good to be true."

    Anne of Green Gables, YES. After getting through Book 5 in my re-read of the series, this is exactly how I feel about Anne. WHERE ARE HER FLAWS???


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