I opened this book with a bit of an expectation already, and not the best of one. I recently read a book written entirely in letters, and it was one of the only books I have ever not finished. As such, starting this book off was a bit of a challenge, since this novel, too, is a series of letters. Yet I did my best to put aside these preconceived ideas and view this book from a clean slate. It was not hard to do. Within the first few pages, I was already falling in love with the characters of Juliet, Sophie, and Sidney.
This book starts off in 1946, just as Europe is beginning to emerge from the shadows of the Second World War. The main character, Juliet Ashton, is an author who is searching for a topic for a new book. An unexpected letter from a complete stranger who lives on the island of Guernsey, a British Island located in the English Channel, is about to change her life. Through his letter, and the letters of the other members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Juliet gets far more than an idea for her next book.
Now, just as a forewarning, from this point on, consider this a spoiler alert. I want this blog to be more than just a simple review blog. I want it to be a place to discuss favorite quotes, characters, and hopefully gain insight from others who have also read this book.
Though I started feeling hesitant, I really came to love the letters in this novel. By using letters as the format to tell this story, it was able to bring a more personal feeling to the relationships being formed hundreds of miles apart. Anyone who had a childhood pen pal can probably identify with this, but I know I eagerly awaited letters from my pen pals. Though we had only met once (and in some cases, not at all), after only a few letters, I felt as close to my pen pals as I did to friends from school or sports. Especially now, in the world of text messages, e-mails, and IM, the charm of an actual handwritten letter, sent by snail mail, only adds to the intrigue of this book.
Early on, I identified strongest with the character of Juliet. In her first letter to Dawsey, Juliet shared a statement about reading which caught my attention. She wrote that "one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny think will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's...all with no end in sight and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment" (pg.11). At this moment, Juliet became a dear friend, as this statement describes me perfectly! I also loved the fact that Juliet decided not to marry Rob simply because he packed up her books and moved them into the basement! It made me laugh out loud! And yes, I think she had her priorities straight - I know I'd do the same thing (ok...maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but the "right" guy would know better than to make this kind of mistake!).
Later on, I found myself having more and more in common with Dawsey's character, as I grew to know him through his letter, his quiet steadiness, and his unassuming way of being the heart of the Literary Society. I could easily see myself curling up with a good book in the hay loft for hours on end as he once did!
As far as the other delightful characters in this story go, there are a few I'd like to mention. Markham V. Reynolds intrigued me early on with his mysterious gifts of flowers for Juliet. He always seemed to have an agenda, though, something he wanted to get from every action he took. He soon became a character I had no time for, as his need to control everything and his dominating manner quickly got on my nerves. Needless to say, I nearly cheered aloud when Juliet finally refused Mark's proposal for good.
The humor in this book was so often slipped in so delicately that it became more of an undercurrent running throughout the entire book. One of my favorite quotes of the entire book was found in one of John Booker's letters regarding Lord Tobias, his employer. "We were all to load the boat with his silver, his paintings, his bibelots, and, if enough room, Lady Tobias, and set sail for England at once." Classic! It took me a moment to realize what a gem this sentence was, but I was soon rolling with amusement!
This leads me to another favorite character, Isola. I loved her humor, her unique mindset, and her claustrophobic bird Zenobia. She was such a loyal and non-judgmental character, which rang true especially when Sidney shared with her that he was gay (I for one was not expecting this turn - part of me was still waiting for a love triangle to emerge between Dawsey, Sidney, and Juliet!). She offered comic relief when things got too serious and a lot of entertainment with her study of head bumps. Her undercover detective work and problem solving near the end of the book capped her off wonderfully, and it was impossible not to love her!
Parts of this book really tugged at my heart strings. One aspect in particular was the letters which addressed the children from Guernsey who were evacuated to England for the duration of the war. My heart broke for these little children, sent away without fully understanding where they were going and why they had to leave the parents behind. And even more so, I felt the impossibility of the situation for the parents, who had to decide if they should send their children away and worry for five years about if they were any safer in England.
The death of Elizabeth was a heartbreaking as loosing any of the other characters I came to love through the letters shared in this book, though we never got the chance to hear from Elizabeth first hand. Yet all the others shared their memories of her so poignantly that her presence and personality was felt nonetheless. The news of her death resulted in the introduction of another character. I never felt much of a connection to Remy, but I think that the role she played in this novel was very interesting. As the Literary Society's last link to Elizabeth, it almost seemed like they felt they had no other option than to invite Remy into their homes and lives. There was an undercurrent of expectation that they needed to save Remy much like they were unable to save Elizabeth. The potential for a love interest for Dawsey was also a bit interesting, but I never doubted Dawsey's attraction to Juliet. I found it fascinating to watch the development as the characters slowly realized that they couldn't be the ones to save Remy, and as she too, realized that Guernsey was not going to provide the answers and the peace she so desperately needed to find. I would love to hear what others thought about Remy's character and the role she played in the lives for the Literary Society members.
One aspect of this novel which I found most interesting was with regards to the role of Peter, the man in the wheelchair who was arrested with Elizabeth for sheltering the young Todt worker. I found it unique that the Germans ended up releasing him from prison because they didn't know what to do with a prisoner in a wheelchair. This seemed to contradict much of what the Germans did all across Europe during WWII. The weak and disabled were often the first to be "disposed" of, not give preferential treatment. What thoughts did any others who have read this book have with regards to this situation?
Overall, this book was an enjoyment to read. It was one of the best books I have read in a while. As I turned the last page, I was so sad to be done. I will miss spending time watching Kit grow up, learning about life on the island of Guernsey, and most of all, sharing my love for literature with a group of people who found solace in books during a horrific time in history.
PS: I can't promise I'll always write this much in a review (in fact, I know I won't always have this much time!) so expect shorter review and discussion to come with future books....
Possible upcoming books
- The Devil's Arithmetic - Jane Yolen
- Summer Sisters - Judy Blume
- In Everything Give Thanks - Terry Barns
- The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir - Kao Kalia Yang (This author is coming to the Brookdale, MN library on July 20th!)
- The Sweet By and By - Todd Johnson
- The Help - Kathryn Stockett
- The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo - Stieg Larsson
- Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford