Sunday, September 27, 2009

Literary Potato Pie

One of the few novels I finished when I was on vacation was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I admit it: I resisted this book. Every time I saw it in a bookstore under signs saying that it was perfect (perfect!) for a book discussion group, I resisted it. Sometimes I just don't want to read what everyone else is reading.

But then I caved in. I was looking for vacation reading and it did look like the perfect book for vacation reading - it was the right length and it had been vetted by librarians. And if it was perfect for everyone's discussion group it couldn't be all that difficult because, after all, most discussion groups never really get around to discussing much. (Am I a book snob or what? Don't answer that.)

So I bought it and I did read it on vacation, which is more than I can say for the pile of other books I had with me.

And I really enjoyed it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is an epistolary novel. I love fake letters. Sometimes I get tired of reading real letters of real people, but that's because most real people don't have a strong narrative line to their lives. But fictional people? I love their letters. It's like being a voyeur without the guilt of peeking at real people's lives.

In some ways I like epistolary novels better than novels just written in the first person. When I read a first person novel I'm constantly remembering that the narrator is inherently unreliable, even when the "person" switches back and forth between characters. But in an epistolary novel the whole point is that the narrator (the letter writer) is unreliable. Nobody who writes a letter ever tells the whole story - there just isn't enough time in the world to write about everything. And all letter writers show only certain parts of themselves to certain recipients. Reading a series of letters to a variety of recipients and seeing what she chooses not to tell all the characters doesn't necessarily tell you more of the story but it can tell you just how duplicitous the writer is.

The main letter writer in this novel is Juliet Ashton, an author who begins the novel on a book tour and who is looking for her next book. Juliet is very ... perky. (I don't usually cast novels in my mind but this time I kept thinking of Amy Adams - but with a British accent.) Juliet writes a lot of letters and she gets them in return - from her publisher and close friend Sidney Stark and from her good friend Sophie Strachan. She also gets an unsolicited letter from Dawsey Adams on the Island of Guernsey. Dawsey is a stranger who has bought a used copy of Charles Lamb's the Selected Essays of Elia and has found Juliet's name and address written inside the cover as the previous owner. Dawsey has tracked Juliet down to her new address to ask her for help locating similar books. Thus begins Juliet's correspondence with the residents of the Island of Guernsey.

The correspondence between Juliet and Dawsey and the other island residents reminded me of another book: 84 Charing Cross Road. (Are used booksellers always looking for good clean copies of Leigh Hunt?) I love the idea of a person getting to know a group of people only by the written word. I like the idea that someone who takes a while to think about what he has to say can communicate better by letter than by speech.

The story takes place in 1946, after the war. All of the characters have lived through a war that touched England but some were touched more than others or, at least, for longer. Those in London lived through the Blitz and Juliet lost her home. But the residents of Guernsey survived an occupation.

A few years ago there was a Masterpiece Theatre production called Islands at War about the invasion and occupation of the Channel Islands by the Nazis. This book reminded me of that production - probably the writers of that script and this novel researched the stories of many of the same real people and were taken by some of the same stories. It helped me imagine Guernsey even though the TV show was actually filmed on the Isle of Man.

The character of Juliet was a bit of a ditz which helped move the story along (she tended to move forward without a lot of forethought). But I liked her almost immediately and especially after she told the story about her broken romance - she knew she couldn't marry the man who wanted to box up all her books and put them in the basement. That would be a deal-breaker for me too.

The authors use a few plot devices to keep the novel limited to letters and telegrams, including having Juliet go on a book tour and then having Sidney leave on a long trip. The authors also gave Juliet no access to a phone. It helps that this is the era of the telegram - Juliet doesn't hesitate to send them . And it helps that in that long ago era the mail was delivered more than one time a day. Thus Juliet can have an exchange of multiple notes within a few hours with Mark, the mysterious, wealthy man who is pursuing her.

I suspected that the "Mark" portion of the novel was thrown in for the upcoming (I'm sure) movie version although it wasn't too distracting and I suppose it revealed something about Juliet. It added some dramatic tension - I kept thinking "oh DON'T marry him!" The authors made Mark a bit of an ass - but that is also his appeal. And I don't think they are completely off base in having Juliet fall for someone who could be a bit pushy. His key benefit was that he knew what he wanted and he tried to get it and usually succeeded. I imagine that after the upheaval of the war it might have seemed nice to have a strong willed, wealthy American (which hadn't suffered from the war the way England did) to make decisions for you. I know I would have fallen for him. For about a month. Maybe.

I thought the authors did a good job developing a large number of characters for a novel this size. The epistolary style helped develop them without them needing a lot of stage time. I liked the character of Isola from the time she wrote this:

... chickens being the reason I fell off a hen-house roof -- they'd chased me there. How they all came at me -- with their razor lips and back-to-back eyeballs! People don't know how chickens can turn on you, but they can -- just like mad dogs. I didn't keep hens until the war came -- then I had to, but I am never easy in their company...

I have to say that I wondered how they were going to wrap everything up, but they did. And I never once suspected Oscar Wilde would have anything to do with it.