17 September 2009
Book Reviews: Stiff Upper Lip and All That
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I didn’t consciously plan to read these two books in quick succession, yet both of them are epistolary novels about coping with the trials and tribulations of World War II in the United Kingdom. In Henrietta’s War, the action takes place in 1941 in a small Devonshire village and is told through a series of letters from Henrietta to her childhood friend Robert who is serving in the British army. In the case of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the action takes place in 1946 and is described in a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, a journalist living in London, her friends and colleagues, and a group of folks who lived through the Nazi-occupation of Guernsey, a British territory in the Channel Islands just off the coast of France.
Henrietta’s War has been much reviewed in the blogosphere by a generally adoring fan base. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t necessarily sweep me off my feet. Perhaps I had read too much hype before I finally got to read it. In any case I won’t spend much time talking about it so you might want to check out reviews by Stuck-in-a-Book, Cornflower, Paperback Reader, Read Warbler, and Frisbee, to name just a few of the great reviews of the book.
TGLPPS has also been reviewed by a great number of folks like Savidge Reads, Letters from a Hill Farm, and Bibliophile by the Sea. But I found this book so delightful that I feel the need to wax rhapsodic about it. I love the book for several reasons. First, the characters come together over their love of literature and they “meet” through their letters. Shaffer and Barrows essentially create a scenario that is not unlike the communities of folks who blog about books and get to know each other by trading literary likes and dislikes on the Internet. The only real difference is that in 1946 the medium was ink, paper, stamps, and the Royal Mail. Which, frankly is another reason I love this book so much, I absolutely love letters. Back in high school I had about 30 pen-pals and I miss the day when people would put pen (or even typewriter) to paper.
The subject matter is also fascinating. I have an undergraduate degree in history, but I am not much of a fan of historical fiction. I am not sure if TGLPPPS would fall into the category of historical fiction, probably not, but it does a great job of describing what life was like in Nazi-occupied Guernsey. In 2005 Masterpiece Theater showed a fantastic British drama called Island at War, a fictional account of life in the occupied Channel Islands. The storylines are completely different, but the historical detail in Island at War and TGLPPPS complement each other rather well. And both of them make me want to visit the Channel Islands.
Another reason to love TGLPPPS is that it is a joy to read. I loved the characters, I loved the plot lines, and I loved the humor. And Shaffer and Barrows are quite deft at weaving the reality of Nazi atrocities into the story without minimizing them or being pedantic.
Occasionally, but not often, the language seems a tad too modern for the 1946 correspondence. But it is just a little whiff here and there, overall it seems very appropriate to the era. I was, however, quite disappointed with the introduction of what I think is a rather pointless reference to one of the character’s homosexuality. The information doesn’t really add anything to the story, unless the authors were just trying to prove that homosexuals existed during World War II. But what was truly jarring to me was the very unrealistic way in which the characters talk about the subject. The dialogue doesn't ring true for one second. In fact it was so stylistically and historically incongruous it was like having a Sousaphone player toot his way across stage through the middle of a Mozart string quartet.
Having said that, the book is wonderful and everyone should read it.
My only other quibble with both Henrietta’s War and TGLPPPS is one that I have with most epistolary novels. When people write letters they almost never include actual dialogue. In a letter (or email) one may write something like “Then he told me to shut-up and I told him to go to hell.” But it is unlikely that someone would write you a letter like this: “Shut-up!” he yelled. “Oh yeah, well you can go to hell!” I replied shaking my fist. And so on. Most people just don’t write that way. One of my all time favorite authors, Carol Shields wrote an epistolary novel with Blanche Howard called A Celibate Season that was so full of quoted dialogue that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. On the other hand 84, Charing Cross Road which is a series of actual letters written by author Helene Hanff that tell a wonderful story and is entirely free of quoted dialogue. In my opinion that is the way it should be. Otherwise epistolary novels are just lazy ways to describe settings or advance plots without needing to be clever enough to connect it all together. A bit of an overgeneralization, I know, but for OCD types like me, it just seems wrong.