My Thoughts & Ramblings regarding the book and movie
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
(Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, Authors)
— Debby Dever
I was walking past my television one day a few months ago, and a movie trailer came on. The words “book club” made me stop in my tracks, so I took enough steps backward to see what this was about.
After watching the trailer, I searched enthusiastically for theater showings of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. After a little research, I discovered the movie was available only on Netflix in the U.S., and the book had been in print since 2009. A trip to Barnes and Noble a few days later, and I held the gem in my eager little hands. As a lover of classic books, how had I missed this?
The story is set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, 1946, post-German occupation. I really didn’t need another reason to feed my desire to visit the UK, and yet, here we are. It’s written as a series of letters (epistolary form) between the characters, much like Lady Susan by Jane Austen, or the Epistles of Paul to the churches in the New Testament.
Something about this story makes me yearn for an old ribbon-typewriter. To tap away on the keys for hours on end, enjoying a satisfying “ding” each time I hit the return at line’s end. Or, the desire to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon idly browsing through intriguing antique shoppes, searching for classic books, old postcards with wonderful handwriting and personal messages, and yellowed front pages of decades-old newspapers. And the urge to open my ancient secretary’s desk, place a wonderfully crisp sheet of stationary in front of me, and write a handwritten letter in elegant cursive to a beloved aunt. With a feathered quill pen and inkwell…or at the very least, a calligraphy pen.
I wish I could have met Mary Ann Shaffer, co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Her only novel…what a shame…and what a fantastic title. Who would not be intrigued to know how that came about? And how wonderful her niece, Annie Barrows, helped her finish the work she began. I believe what Ms. Shaffer suggested, that there is “some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” Because this book came to me, and I love it.
There have been other times I’ve felt that sensation, but I could never put it into words the way she did. One was the book Vendetta! by Marie Corelli, which I found on a dusty back shelf of an obscure antique store—read the first line (I, who write this, am a dead man…!) and was sold. It remains one of my all-time favorites. Another was Black Beauty, which had me at the words “struggling in the stream, groaning on the grass.” As a child I remember reading and re-reading that sentence. Even though it was a sad scene, that wonderfully alliterative sentence just felt good. It was the first time I remember thinking to myself—Wow! I wish I had written that! Like I belonged to it somehow. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has become one of those rare books to which I feel I belong.
The story revolves around the character of Elizabeth McKenna, and the impact of her friendship on others. Elizabeth’s sacrificial nature inspires me. Like the members of Corrie ten Boom’s family (The Hiding Place) who died for “helping someone,” Elizabeth risked and ultimately gave her life for others during the Holocaust. She initiated the formation of a book club to bring people together, bravely stepped up as spokesperson when the group was confronted by curfew guards, was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück while attempting to rescue a slave boy, and sacrificed herself finally by refusing to stand by and watch another human be clubbed to death. Her reward was a bullet, if you want to look at it that way…but this fictional character’s life didn’t end with a bullet. Her influence inspired not only the other characters of the book, but every reader of this book. Would she have been released and returned home to her daughter Kit if she had not acted so boldly? Maybe—but that was not her character. The real-life experiences of Betsie and Corrie ten Boom (of The Hiding Place) were very similar to Elizabeth’s. The descriptions of the concentration camp are so alike, they border on plagiarism. But I suppose there are only so many ways to describe such a horrific place. Corrie’s fate might have matched Elizabeth’s, if Corrie hadn’t had cool-headed sister Betsie there to stop her when she grabbed a club to attack a guard.
I find myself contemplating if I would be an Elizabeth or a Corrie in that situation.
As an absolutely obsessed Jane Austen fan, I loved the sprinkled hints of her works throughout the story. The name of the main character (Juliet’s) love interest, Dawsey, is an obvious connection to Pride and Prejudice. Amelia’s daughter (or Eben’s, depending on if you’re watching the movie or reading the book), Jane, was Elizabeth’s best friend, just as the same-named sisters were in Pride and Prejudice. Isola is a reflection of the fun, faithful, not-so-attractive best friend and confidant that Elizabeth Bennet had in Charlotte Lucas. The biggest difference is Isola is a hopeless romantic, while Charlotte was more practical.
Isola…what a perfect character name. She is alone…isolated…when it comes to love and life. What a wonderful gift to find the group of friends who embrace her. Isola reminded me immediately of Honey, the funny feather-haired sister of Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill. You can’t help but love her. One of my favorite Jane Austen lines describes friendship as being the “finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” I love the line where Juliet sees Isola doing something goofy right off and says she loved Isola the minute she saw her. The balm of Juliet’s friendship seems to fill a great need in Isola’s life, as she “waits for her Heathcliff.” Their sleepover conversation and tearful hugs and goodbyes are such touching scenes. Later in the story, the Miss Marple mishap investigations are hilarious. You can only hope their friendship grows if the story continues. Friendships like that are so incredibly rare and precious.
Another great Austen reference was the look on Juliet’s face when she first sees Dawsey’s quaint cottage. It reminded me of the look on Elizabeth Bennet’s face when she rounded the corner to a full view of Darcy’s “Pemberley.” I can never decide which movie version of that gaze I like best—Keira Knightly’s humorous shock, or Jennifer Ehle’s softer, incredulous gaze. Lily James does the scene justice, not overdoing her reaction…but then again, she was looking at the cottage of a pig farmer as opposed to a 300-room mansion. Hey—a girl knows when it feels right, whether it’s Darcy’s Pemberley or Dawsey’s pig farm.
There were comedic scenes, even if they weren’t meant to be funny. One was the yellow dress Juliet wears to the party…the only thing I could think of as she was descending the stairs was Bridget Jones and the gown of similar color she wore to the Lawyer’s Ball, without quite as much success as Juliet. Another Jane Austen reference, even if it wasn’t intentional. And let’s be real…it’s hard to compete with Lily James (aka Lady Rose Aldridge of Downton Abbey, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies).
There were heartwrenching scenes…as when Kit walked in and Juliet saw her for the first time. This brought back a memory of the first time I saw my adopted daughter Jessica…that little pixie face looking up at my husband saying, “Can you take me to chorch tonight?” No one with a soul could say no to such a face. Some moments you just never forget—you know that person is going to be a part of your life forever. And the scene where Eben’s grandson Eli is sent away overseas with the other children to England the day before the Germans came…all those little faces…unforgettable and unimaginable.
There were symbolic moments…the hoards of expensive flowers from Markum, which Juliet thought nothing of, to the contrast of a simple wildflower, crushed between the pages of a book, touched by both Kit and Dawsey, absolutely precious to her. And the coldness of the expensive ring she kept hidden, much like Titanic’s Rose keeping the huge, priceless Heart of the Ocean diamond in a box and hating to wear it. I also liked the scene where Juliet is sitting at one of her dull fancy parties, and she’s so bored she watches a balloon break apart from the bunch and float away. Such a great illustration of her longing to float away from that crowd, to be free to find what is missing in her life.
Which brings me to another point, the focus of many movies and stories: the rich, obnoxious, seemingly perfect current boyfriend who gets thrown over by the heroine for the regular guy. This storyline is not like Jane Austen, unless you include Mansfield Park. But it smacks of the Hallmark movie “The Wish List,” where the girl makes a list of her qualifications for a husband, finds the perfect guy, and ultimately falls in love with a guy who doesn’t fit the list whatsoever but attracts her anyway. And Titanic, where Rose falls for a penniless artist, giving up a seemingly perfect, wealthy man.
The character of best-friend Sidney was wonderful. He reminded me of Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle. The best friend who isn’t afraid to tell you what they think, can ask a question just sarcastically enough that you know it’s sarcasm, and can tell you more by a look or even by their silence what they’re really thinking. It’s a shame Sophie wasn’t included as a character in the movie. That left a huge hole, don’t you think? As well as Remy, Juliet’s mistaken rival for Dawsey. There were other characters missing from the movie that weren’t terribly missed, but I really am sorry the movie didn’t include Isola’s experience with the letters from Oscar Wilde. You must read the book to get that exciting sidestory.
I love where Juliet is packing for her trip to Guernsey and tosses aside her book written under a pen name, and chooses instead to take her biography of Anne Brontë, which she wrote under her real name, from her heart. You can’t help but wonder how hard it would have been in Jane Austen’s time to have no choice but to write in anonymity, signing just “A Lady,” or as the Brontë sisters did, using male pen names.
The one irritating point in the movie to me was the obligatory overbearing, hypocritical “Christian.” Not referring to Elizabeth’s love interest, who was apparently a great guy…but to the hideous Charlotte Stimple, the keeper of the boarding house. She is the Frank Burns (of M*A*S*H fame) of the story—rude, judgmental, intolerant, and just plain awful. Self-righteously placing a Bible on the nightstand for the newly-arrived Juliet with a pious, holier-than thou glance. It’s all the negative misconceptions of Christianity stuffed into one snooty old English bag. Just hate seeing an unfair generalization of a section of society which in general deserves more respect. I suppose the innkeeper’s character was the equivalent of Adelaide Addison from the book. There have to be antagonists, I suppose.
Back to the movie. Didn’t happen in the book, but the scene where Juliet leaves on the plane is so heartbreaking. So Casablanca. But after the tearful goodbyes, where Markum buckles her in like he’s saying YOU’RE MINE NOW…that really enhanced the feeling of knowing she’d be back. After all, Anne Brontë wouldn’t have stood for that kind of treatment.
Just as Juliet stated in one of her letters, all good books lead a person to other authors and books. Since the mention of Charles Lamb, I’ve enjoyed and shared the poem “The Old Familiar Faces” and soaked up his famous motto: “Contented with little, yet wishing for more.” (Don’t you just love that?) I’m researching other writings and the tragic life stories of Charles and his sister Mary. I had never heard of either of them. “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” This quote from the book, featured just inside the cover, gave me goosebumps before I even started reading. Because I believe that is true…in a God-sense, more than a magical sense. Soon after I began reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, my husband and I were browsing around an antique store, and as usual I ended up in a section of dusty books, haphazardly stacked in no particular order. The faded red spine of a rather large volume caught my eye: it was TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE by Charles Lamb. I don’t care what anyone says…this book was meant for me to find. For one thing, I’ve been meaning to read Shakespeare in depth and just can’t seem to get into it, and this book is made for children, which is great. For another thing, if you’ve read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, you know that Charles Lamb is the main author who brought people together in the story. It was a truly goosebumpy moment, finding that book. (Yes, I bought it.)
But the greatest moment of the book (and movie) for me, was when I was watching the credits roll at the end. (Don’t you hate watching the movies on television, where you can’t read the credits, or hear the soundtrack?) I watched and listened carefully, and realized the audio was of the readings at the meetings. I rewound and listened…took notes of who was presenting, and what they were reading. At the very end, little Kit recited the poem “Now We Are Six” by A.A. Milne, which I had never heard. I cried. Because I have a precious granddaughter who is six, and I would love for her to stay six forever. She has memorized the poem. Just tell me that wasn’t for me. This felt like the cherry on top of the sundae of my experience with this compelling book and movie.
It was meant for me, and maybe it’s meant for you too. Happy reading.