Book Notes: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love words. I’ve posted before about my love of literary quotes. Last week, I finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It offered me this gem, which I’m sharing with you:

“When I got up this morning, the sea was full of sun pennies — and now it all seems to be covered in lemon scrim. Writers ought to live far inland or next to the city dump, if they are ever to get any work done. Or perhaps they need to be stronger-minded than I am.”

Guersney is the story of the writer Juliet Ashton who is, herself, looking for a story to tell. She finds one in the history of Guernsey Island, occupied by the Germans during World War II, and in the island’s lively heroine, Elizabeth McKenna. The novel takes the shape of letters passed between characters as diverse as an island witch/detective, Juliet’s  British publisher, a valet who pretends to be his own master during the war, a devotee of Charles Lamb, and the inventor of the Potato Peel Pie who otherwise cannot cook a bit. The novel immerses its readers in the lives of these distinct personalities, lives that surface with remarkable breadth and clarity from sheaves of correspondence. At its heart, though, the book is Juliet Ashton and her delightful way of looking at the world.

Juliet’s life takes dramatic turns when she arrives in Guernsey, when she encounters the central presence of the sea. In watching the ocean, she writes, “Not even the Germans could ruin the sea.” It is the sea, the Channel, after all, that plays such a role in Guernsey’s fate, its precarious position between Hitler and London. For the Nazis, Guernsey is a stepping stone that ultimately leads them not to conquest, but to the same hunger and loss that they inscribe on the island’s population. Yet, Shaffer and Barrows are careful to avoid lump sums: not all of the invaders deserve our hatred, nor do all the inhabitants merit approbation. There is a complexity of motives and aspirations throughout the story that is perfectly human in its defiance of simple categories, transparent tales.

Given its subject and setting, there is understandable mourning throughout Guernsey, but it is mourning leavened with resilience and with the unbreakable bonds between the members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Early in the novel, one of the Society members writes to Juliet:

“‘Life goes on.’ What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on . . . . There’s no end to that. But perhaps there will be an end to the sorrow of it. Sorrow has rushed over the world like the waters of the Deluge, and it will take time to recede. But already, there are small islands of — hope? Happiness? Something like them at any rate. I like the picture of you standing upon your chair to catch a glimpse of the sun, averting your eyes from the mounds of rubble.”

In the end, this is perhaps Juliet’s — and the novel’s — greatest strength, the finding of “sun pennies” in a world swamped by sorrow, acknowledging that the tides will always flow, but that they will also always change. As a writer, I take Juliet’s initial admonition with a grain of salt. I’d rather live with the “distractions” of sea and light than beside the refuse of the city dump. I know, like Juliet, that when we avert our eyes from rubble, it’s only ultimately to come back to it, to the process of rebuilding, with a new strength, furrowed by the sun.

What quotations lift you up, either old favorites or new acquaintances? Where do you find your own “sun pennies,” your own lovely, sweet distractions?