I was travelling and could not attend my last book club meeting, and so it was with great anticipation that I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for the following meeting on my return. It was a book I enjoyed reading, particularly because I found out a lot about the German occupation of Guernsey Island during World War II, and it was a page that had been missing in my world history textbook.
Our host began with a more general question: What is your most favourite and least favourite character? Elizabeth McKenna was the first named, because she was liked by all the characters (except Adelaide Addison) in the book and everyone had something interesting to say about her. Another person our group liked was the heroine Juliet Ashton, who was forthcoming with her feelings and her thoughts. I picked Isola Pribby, because I found her feisty and forthright. There was consensus regarding the least likable characters and it was Mark Reynold, and Adelaide came in close too.
Two book club members were born in Holland and they had much to share regarding what they had heard from their parents and families about the experience of the Dutch under German occupation in World War II. They helped us relate to the hardship and fear the characters in the book had lived through. They said that rubber tires were removed from bicycles and people cycled on the bare frames. The mother of one person hid cheeses under her clothes, because if they had met a German soldier and he did not like them for whatever reasons, the cheese could have been confiscated. It was also interesting that the family of one member from England had sheltered a children from the city, and again, it made the experience of Eben Ramsy’s and his grandson more real. It was also brought up that Remy’s story of the concentration camp gave perspective to what the women had gone through in France, since earlier in the year, we read about concentration camp life in Auschwitz in Man’s Search for Meaning. I never heard of ‘todt’ (the slave in the book, and In German, it means death) until I read this book.
We liked the various surprises in the plot, such as Sydney being gay and the betrayal by Bobbie Gee. By contrast, the ending was too fairy-tale like, and not to everyone’s liking. It was attributed to the fact that probably it was the second author taking over and the onus was on her to give a quick conclusion to the story. Nonetheless, there was fair treatment of the misreading and misunderstanding of feelings among the characters– Dawsey, Juliet, Mark, Sydney and Remy– throughout the book. This helped with character development and adds to the readers’ enjoyment.
Isola made a remark in the book that reading a good book spoiled one’s enjoyment of reading a bad one. This prompted our discussion of what we looked for in a good book. We all had the experience of turning the pages through a formulaic novel. I smiled to myself, “Chick Lit!” Individual expectations and criteria varied. Some looked for style, some looked for a good story, or interesting characters.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has succeeded in revealing the different personalities of the individual characters who penned the letters. When I compare it with other letter-writing novels I have read, I think it pales standing beside 84 Charing Cross Road and the Griffin and Sabine Trilogy. It does not have the refined subtlety dealing with emotions as in 84 Charing Cross Road, or the intense mystique and power of Griffin and Sabine. Nevertheless, it stands on its own as a good book and an enjoyable read. in fact, I found myself laughing out loud in the beginning reading Juliet’s letters. She is lively and humorous. It is always healthy to read a lighter book in between the viscerally or cerebrally demanding ones.
We digressed into talking how we missed the experience of letter writing and the anticipation of receiving letters now that email had taken over, although some of us still wrote letters and sent them through email. We lamented, “Who would bother about pen-pals when social media on the internet has taken over?” To me, Writing a letter and addressing it to an individual (and this certainly rule out blogging) is personal and private. It is a unique media to express and share one’s thoughts and feelings. I certainly hope that letter writing will not become a lost art.