During World War II, the island of Guernsey (as well as other islands located in the English Channel) was occupied by German soldiers. Did you know that? I did not. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set about a year after the island was liberated. Our protagonist, Juliet, has gotten to know a few people from Guernsey and realizes that their stories need to be recorded and told for all to hear. This is lucky for us, because we get to hear their stories through the letters that they write to her. These letters tell the stories of how strength, determination, decency, sense of humor, and, of course, books got them through the war. After she goes to the island herself, we continue to hear their stories through Juliet herself, in her own letters to her friends.
For being such a life-affirming book (and stories of strength and determination are certainly life-affirming), I cried an awful lot. And not where you’d expect, either. One would imagine that the tales of these delightful people would bring an inspirational tear to my eye, but it was the stories of man’s inhumanity to man that really got me this time. The prison camps, the children who were sent away for their own safety, the intense hunger . . . and things I think you should probably discover for yourself. I kept welling over, much to Mike’s alarm, asking him how things like that happen, why people treat each other in those ways.
But it’s a life-affirming book, to be sure, filled with wonderful characters who try their best to do the right things. On a basic plot level, there’s not much to the story. You will probably be able to tell where it is headed right from the start. But the setting, the history, and the characters make it something special. When I was writing about American Wife, I mentioned that fiction can ask good questions. This isn’t that sort of book. This one is just about the truth of the human experience and how people survive very difficult circumstances. Even that doesn’t tell the story of this book, because the authors balanced their humor and their more serious topics very carefully. I laughed at these friends’ antics only to find myself streaming tears two pages later.
Maybe it’s because we are at war (though it seems so distant and so unlike what these characters and those people experienced) or maybe it is because this is the time of year when we talk of “peace on earth,” but I found this light book to be much more moving than I expected. It’s not the sort of book I usually recommend, but, in the end, I came away thinking it was something pretty special.