I know. Everyone was reading and talking about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society last year, and the year before that too. I can’t say it was even on my TBR list, but I was shelf browsing at the library and there it was. So now I’ve read it.
The basic story has already been summarized many times in the blogosphere. It’s a post World War II epistolary novel about life on Guernsey during and after the German occupation. It’s also a love story between a London author and pretty much everyone she corresponds with, especially one fellow whom she finally marries.
It was an enjoyable read, and here are some of the things it got me thinking about:
- I’m not immediately attracted to epistolary novels, but all the correspondents here are so witty it held my attention. It reminded me a lot of 84 Charing Cross Road, but with a fuller cast of letter-writers. It got me thinking about whether there are parallels between these epistolary relationships and the ones that form online. In this book the characters meet “IRL,” and no one is disappointed (my lurking fear about meeting anyone from the blogosphere in real life). Is who we are in print closer to our true selves, or further away? Are we better/smarter/more diplomatic in writing than face-to-face? These kinds of questions occurred to me as I read. (I haven’t answered them…)
- The characters were all much too clever to be believable, actually.
- The ending felt sudden and predictable — like the authors were playing hide-and-seek, got tired of waiting to be found out, and decided to end things quickly.
- It was very clever, and for awhile I thought that was all it was. But it brought me to tears more than once, so beneath the entertainment was a human story that pulled my human heartstrings.
- I learned a little about what the occupation felt like.
- There was sort of a spiritual theme, worked out through comments the characters made about their readings and their neighbors and their life choices, and through the one stock religious hypocrite character. This was mostly a source of frustration for me, as there were no genuine people of faith featured. Even among the “bad guys” — the Germans — there was one decent character. But not among the Christians.
- Reading. I really enjoyed the depiction of books as food for the soul, and as footholds of meaning in a chaotic time. The characters respond to their reading in non-academic, deeply personal ways, and virtually everyone in the literary society comes off looking unpretentiously erudite. Is this further evidence of my feeling that the characters are too clever to be believable? Or is it actually the case that when we read — at least, when we read the kinds of classics that these folks read — we can be raised out of sleepy passivity into a higher sphere of thought?
If I were in the habit of rating books, I wouldn’t call this a great one. But I still enjoyed it immensely. It provided for me what my favorite prof in college used to call “an encapsulating aesthetic experience.” There was an effortlessness to reading it. I can see why it has been so popular.