Comfort Reading – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (ISBN: 9780385340991, 275 pages, Published July 2008)

Comfort reading is like comfort eating – minus the calories. From time to time I return to my bookshelf and pull out an old faithful friend. It has the same effect on me as eating a block of chocolate. It just makes me feel good.

Now I can add a new book to my comfort reading list: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My best friend gave me this book before she got on a plane to go back to her home overseas. “Read it, it’s good,” she said.

I picked it up the other day and just meant to read a page or two. I ended up reading half the book! At first I wasn’t sure if I would like a book that is set out as a bunch of letters between numerous people. But it didn’t take long for me to warm to this format. Reading letters really draws you in and makes you feel closer to the characters.

The book is set in Britain in 1946, a time when everyone is emerging from the horror of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton is fresh off a book tour and hunting around for the topic of her next book. She corresponds with her publisher and friend Sidney and his sister, Sophie, through a series of letters and telegrams. Then she receives a letter from a stranger named Dawsey Adams. He is a pig farmer from the British Island of Guernsey and found her details written in the front of a second-hand book. He writes to ask where he can find more books from the same author.

It is through the course of this correspondence that Juliet learns how the island was occupied by the Nazis throughout the war and how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being. Soon she is corresponding with a motley crew of islanders from a white witch who makes terrible concoctions, to an elderly farmer and a butler who impersonated a Lord throughout the occupation. What at first begins as an amusing correspondence quickly awakens the writer in Juliet. She learns that at the heart of all these stories is a remarkable woman named Elizabeth. The members of the literary society are waiting for Elizabeth to come home from wherever she was sent by the Germans during the war. As they wait, they are collectively taking care of Elizabeth’s small daughter, Kit.

To tell you much more would be to spoil the natural and entertaining way this story unfolds. I never knew that the islands between England and France were occupied by the Nazis, nor what the islanders had to endure to survive the war. The stories tell of starvation, of sending children away for years to the mainland, of friendships and run-ins with German soldiers, and of years without any news from England. But mostly this is a story of finding light in dark places, of love and resilience, and of how books can unite people from all walks of life. Although some of the subject matter is heavy, it is written in a manner that doesn’t weigh you down.

I really enjoyed this book. I’d heard about it for years but it wasn’t until my friend placed it in my hands that I read it. It’s just the kind of book that I needed to read right now. Or as Juliet says in the book: “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”