The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Jane Austen doesn’t appear until page 198 of this delightful work of historical fiction, but once she does, I realized how much her ideology permeates it. This epistolary novel traces the life of two central female protagonists who never officially meet:  Juliet Ashton, a single London writer struggling to find her place in a world literally torn asunder by World War II, and Elizabeth McKenna, a single Guernsey reader whose quick wit saves her neighbors and whose kind nature lands her in a Nazi prison. The other characters, too, are rich, layered, and interesting, and it is one of them (Isola Pribby) who rather randomly gets a recommendation (from Sidney Stark, Juliet’s friend and publisher) to read Austen, and who takes offense that neither of her two literary advisors (Amelia Maugery and Juliet) ever “made mention of Miss Jane Austen” to her (198).

There are several subsequent mentions of Austen. Juliet comments to Sidney that Isola has berated her for “never telling her about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy” (200). Pride and Prejudice is a “love story” better than the others she has read because it is not “riddled with ill-adjusted men, anguish, death, and graveyards!” (200). Just as Sidney helps Isola discover Austen, Sidney helps Juliet discover the heart of her own work: Elizabeth McKenna. She, like Elizabeth Bennet, falls in love with someone from another world of sorts, and there are obstacles to their being together. The story comes full circle when another unexpected love match blossoms between Juliet and a man the world would not expect her to love. Isola, meanwhile, calls an early meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so she doesn’t “have to wait to talk about Jane Austen” (223).

Books, then, as long as they foster discussion and passion, continue to live long past the decease of their writers. Given the untimely passing of Mary Ann Shaffer, that thought should be of particular significance with this text, and all the texts the characters discuss during the darkest days of war, and ever since.

At the meeting during which Isola plans to speak on Pride and Prejudice, plans have to change (because her goat, Ariel eats her notes). In lieu of Austen? Eight excitement-filled letters that reveal a hidden literary treasure from yet another brilliant satirist, often compared to Austen despite his very different life style. In the letters, a brilliant story saves a little girl from misery, much as, on the island, several brilliant stories ward off the misery of a people invaded by the enemy, robbed of their children, and cut off from the rest of civilization until the end of the war.

Isola becomes so entranced by Austen that, as she pretends to be Miss Marple (in a rather Emma-esque turn, she learns belatedly how “blind” she has been to what is right before her), she decides on a remedy for the insanity of her friend, Booker: “I think I will lend him Jane Austen,” she thinks matter-of-factly (266). When Juliet’s love story finally works, Isola contrives to grant the lovers “the freedom of the shrubbery—just like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet” (273).

Juliet finally connects Jane Austen to her own situation on the final page of this novel.  She says that, all her life, she “thought that the story was over when the hero and heroine were safely engaged—after all, what’s good enough for Jane Austen ought to be good enough for anyone” (274). But, she continues, “it’s a lie. The story is about to begin, and every day will be a new piece of the plot” (274). That’s all very nice for our heroine to say, but fortunately for us, Shaffer and Barrows have decided otherwise with this story. As in Austen, in Society, the heroine must fully understand her own experience and reactions to it before she can truly love the man she is supposed to love. Navigating the journey of discovery—both of the self and of the man—is the process Austen’s novels help us face. This book does so, too.

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I was captivated by the title of this novel when I was at the library on one of my many visits and that was more than one year ago. I loved this book, the premise, the unknown history, but mostly the characters. I have since purchased the book to have and to hold and pass it along to friends I know will treasure the story and they will return the book. I hate people who do not return books. I remember them well. It is definitely worse than turning down a page corner. Thank you for the hours of loving memories to share with my loved one. I hope Masterpiece Theater makes a production of this.

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