Consuming Letters in an Age of 280 Characters – a book review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Madeleine Corley

My grandmother has been urging me to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows for a while as it is one of her favorite books. She has always been fascinated with Pre-WWII and WWII era novels and history, and this story explores a piece of that history that had not been discussed often. So she lent me her copy in the summer of 2017. Well, time somehow progressed and soon it was July 2018:the film adaptation was arriving in August and I had managed to keep my grandmother’s copy for almost eleven months without cracking open the pages. So I decided to delight in one of my grandmother’s favorites, especially before seeing the film (I am an avid read-before-watching believer, and this book and film is no diversion from that belief).

I began Chapter One around 9:00 pm and reached the Acknowledgements at 4:30 am. I had found the book impossible to put down and more pressing than the need to sleep. The novel is an epistolary narrative, meaning it is written in a series of letters or communications similar to letters (dispatches, journal entries,cables, etc). Guernseywas my first ever epistolary novel and has since inspired me to take up letter writing more seriously (a lost and unappreciated art, I’d say). I feel letters are either associated with a poured out heart (think Lara Jean and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a series by Jenny Han and also recently released on film) or a chronology of time. After reading this book, I am retraining myself to see letters as a form of care no matter the content. Whether they embody my deepest love or what I ate on a Thursday in August, the energy put into their crafting holds an additional layer of meaning. Shaffer and Barrows communicate this in their novel, elevating the plot and portrayal of characters splendidly.

The plot follows the life of Juliet Ashton, an author whose fame stems from a character and pen name she used to make light of the horrors of World War II. It’s now 1946 and this character, Izzy Bickerstaff, almost haunts Juliet, confining her to a writing style and air that she no longer wants to dictate her life. Her publisher and life long friend, Sydney, is often the recipient of her letters, where she details her daily discoveries and qualms with her Izzy book tour. The letter narrative also serves as a major plot point and change in Juliet’s life. One day, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel. He has somehow gotten his hands on a copy of her Charles Lamb book, sharing that he loves Lamb’s writings and was hoping to locate another book also authored by Lamb. Having never heard of Guernsey or Germany’s occupation of it during the war, his letter fascinates Juliet. As they continue their correspondence, Juliet learns the details of the occupation and how Dawsey and fellow residents coped with many years under German rule: the began a literary society. She feels that their story could be her transition from comedy writing into hard-hitting journalism. During her on Guernsey through its residents, she is being pursued by Mark Reynolds, an American publisher whose determination is nothing short of astounding. Their relationship grows as does hers and Dawsey’s, and soon Juliet finds herself at the steps of the Literary and Potato Peel Society’s Friday meeting.

Juliet travels to Guernsey with the intention to stay only a few days at the behest of Sydney and Mark, for separate reasons. As she meets all of the people she’s been sharing letters with, her fascination turns admiration turns requirement.She decides she will not leave this island until she has completed her research. This includes finding the location of a Guernsey resident who was taken to the mainland by the Germans during the occupation. I don’t want to venture far into this part of the novel because of its significance to the plot. It is enough to say that Juliet’s life forever changes because of a letter that brought her to Guernsey.

Shafferand Barrows do a fantastic job at threading a plot through different characters and their letters. They write each character with a complexity that comes through in colloquialism and what I see as authentic moments through written communication. I find myself showcasing some of my truest self when I write letters, and I feel the same honesty emerging from the characters of this book through their most personal writings. In an age currently driven by social media that allows quick blips to be emitted and then passed over, think Twitter, the epistolary form of Guernsey allows for a re-examination of how we communicate in 2018. The novel stays true to the historical forms of correspondence after WWII while reminding us of the importance of engaging person-to-person today. I want to write letters to my friends and family even when they are now a short phone call or text message away, simply because one letter could prove to be a cornerstone to the future.

A part of me wishes that I had indulged much sooner in Shaffer and Barrows’ novel because of its historical landscape and compelling characters. Another part of me believe some things arrive when they are supposed to, and my anxiety to get my grandmother’s copy back to her is no different. This year, I am embarking on a journey to Ireland, a complete upheaval of my current life. Guernsey has contributed to how I see this change and how I want to commemorate the people who support and care for me now, regardless of the inevitable distance between us.  There is such a power in epistolary writing that I believe cuts deep into our need to be authentic with others. Pick up this book and you will find a travel bug and a hunger to pen letters to everyone. You could go far as me and even send a copy of this book to a love done accompanied with a letter. And if you don’t, still promise me to keep contact with those who matter to you more often, even if you feel they’re simply a phone call away.