The novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is written entirely in letter format. It’s a way of writing that could grow dull quickly, but the authors avoided that pitfall by developing their characters so well their personalities shine through each piece of mail. (The novel was started by Mary Ann Shaffer, but due to health reasons, Mary Ann asked her niece Annie Barrows to finish the book)
The novel is sent on post World War II England; the first letter is dated 8th January, 1946. The war is over, but not the hardships–rebuilding hasn’t gone far, and wartime shortages still abound. The first letter is from writer Juliet Ashton, to her publisher Sidney Stark, lamenting her lack of progress on her latest book. Juliet is a writer with an attitude, closing her letter with “P.S I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? “My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes.” I hope Jane spat on her” (4). Sidney responds, closing his letter with “P.S. You write charming little notes” (4).
By reading these first two letters, the reader knows these two have a strong, long-lasting friendship, one that has grown out of a good business relationship. Juliet closes her next letter with another P.S, this one referring to an incident Sidney is already aware of, clarifying Juliet “did not throw “The Shepherd Boy Sings in the Valley of Humiliation” at the audience. I threw it at the elocution mistress. I meant to cast it at her feet, but I missed” (6).
Every piece of correspondence between the characters in the book isn’t included, but it doesn’t have to be. When Juliet writes back to Mrs. Alexander Strachan at Feochan Farm, an old friend living in Scotland and Sidney’s sister, it’s full of gossip about the previous night’s disastrous dinner party and Juliet’s inability to find suitable man–“I think there’s something wrong with me. Every man I meet is intolerable.” (8) She goes on to say “Do you suppose the St. Swithin’s furnace-man was my one true love? Since I never spoke to him, it seems unlikely, but at least it was a passion unscathed by disappointment” (8)
Then in a letter dated 12th January, 1946, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a farmer in Guernesy. He knows about Juliet because he has an old book that once belonged to Juliet and her name and address is written inside the book. Dawsey is writing because he’s a huge fan of Charles Lamb, the author of the book and he’s writing Juliet to ask if she could “send me the name and address of a bookshop in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post,” (9). Dawsey is a fan of Lamb’s because “Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig” (9). Dawsey goes on to explain “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers” (9). He ends his letter with a PS regarding a pamphlet a friend of his bought that once belonged to Juliet. The pamphlet was called “Was There a Burning Bush? A Defense of Moses and the Ten Commandments.” Juliet had scribbled in the margins a question “Word of God or crowd control?” (10) and Dawsey wants to know if she ever decided the answer.
The intimate nature of the letters reveals the characters of the novel—personal details that wouldn’t resonate as much if revealed in a more standard format. Backstory becomes important information revealing more about characters, but it’s revealed in a natural setting—information that’s needed to explain current actions of the characters. There is no straight narration in the novel, but it’s not needed; the letters reveal the characters’ personalities, lives and struggles. They also move the novel forward, as Juliet moves from London to Guernsey in order to research the new book she’s decided to write and becomes swept up in the residents’ lives.
What makes the writing work in this novel is the format, which reveals the characters in intimate ways—letters between two people is an intimate form of communication, written with the understanding that no one else will be privy to the contents, allowing the reader to really get to know the characters.
Barrows, Annie, and Mary Ann Shaffer. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. New York: Dial Press, 2009. Print.