It is written as a series of letters and telegrams sent by and to Juliet Ashton. Juliet is writer living in London shortly after WWII. During the war she wrote a lighthearted column under a pseudonym to try and keep spirits up while the bombs fell. Her editor has sent her on a book tour for the collected columns. Juliet is exhausted and depressed from representing the humorous Izzy Bickerstaff because people are trying to rebuild their lives and now that the threat of war is over, they find they have to deal with the aftermath which is somehow more depressing and stressful. Juliet wants to get back to a serious topic that will reflect the hopelessness of the war but turn into a hopeful look at what comes next. She has zero ideas.
She receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams who is from the island of Guernsey. Dawsey found her name in a used book and writes to her in the hopes she can send them more books. Juliet knows nothing about Guernsey, but as the book continues she learns that the Germans occupied the island during the war. They stay there for five years, controlling the islanders’ lives, taking over property, requisitioning food and supplies and holding the people in a war hostage situation.
However, residents are able to find moments of hope and lightness and one way is through the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Members of the Society meet to discuss books and share whatever food they are able to scrape up, hence the potato peel pie. It’s an odd mix of people, thrown together by circumstance, but the final members end up helping each other in many ways. Dawsey in particular becomes more confident and comfortable because of this group. One of the things I liked about the Society is that anyone can join and many of the members swear they don’t like reading. However, everyone is able to find at least one book or author they like and even if they reread the same thing every month, they find they are enjoying the Society and the act of reading and discussing books. This made me incredibly happy because no one was excluded and there was no thoughts that some books were better than others.
Their founding member is a woman named Elizabeth McKenna and no one knows where she is now. During the war she was caught aiding a Todt slave worker and was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. The members of the Society have taken turns raising her daughter Kit and wait anxiously for her return. Elizabeth fell in love with a German soldier, much to the disgust of many on the island, and Kit is born out of wedlock. Her father is dead but Kit is well loved and cared for. She is one of the few children left on the island because most were shipped to safety when the Germans came. Many children were never reunited with their families.
As Juliet gets to know the members of the Society (almost all of them are soon writing to her) she finds herself even more eager to write a serious book, but still can’t figure out what the topic will be.
She’s also dealing with a confusing romance. Mark Reynolds is a publisher from America and decides to marry Juliet soon after meeting her. Sidney Stark, Juliet’s current publisher and very good friend, is convinced that Mark is simply trying to steal her away from him knowing that she is a very good writer and has the potential to publish wildly successful books. Juliet does get swept up in Mark’s good looks, confidence and money, and yet she doesn’t seem to fall head over heels for him.
As letters continue to pass back and forth, Juliet finds herself more and more curious about Guernsey and the members of the Society. She becomes quick friends with many of them, and when they invite her to the island she is eager to go. When she arrives, everything changes. She finds the topic of her book and with Sidney’s help, she finds the structure and form. She learns more and more about the island and is disappointed in herself that she knows so little of what happened outside of London during the war.
She also surprises herself by questioning what she really wants from life and asking herself for the first time who she is now that the war is over. Everything she assumed would happen isn’t happening and Guernsey, the Society, and little Kit force her to slow down, catch her breath and examine who she is and who she wants to be.
I was pleased with the sweet ending. Many things happened that I was hoping for, but it didn’t feel syrupy and rainbows. Maybe that’s because I so quickly realized this book is kin to Anne of Green Gables. If you miss Anne, pick this book up.
The supporting characters are another delight. Their personalities are often hilarious (especially the people who are serious) and the stories they tell are wonderful. The sad parts hurt more because you learn so much about them, and this makes the hopeful moments even stronger. You want these people to be real, much like I wanted Anne Shirley and her friends to be real.
I also enjoyed it as historical fiction because I didn’t know anything about Guernsey. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows did a lot of research to bring fictional character to life in this non-fictional setting. After reading the note at the end about why there are two authors, I loved this book a little bit more.
I’m curious to see how the movie adaptation will work since the entire book is told in letters, but I think it will be an easy adaptation. I love Kate Winslet and look forward to seeing her as Juliet.