If Susan Sontag were alive today, she would probably be hard at work on an essay. The essay would be called “Notes on Quirk,” and it would be about Juno, Feist, Marisha Pessl, Napoleon Dynamite, Charlie Kaufman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bridget Jones, Nick Hornby and roughly 71% of all bloggers. The essay would analyze–lovingly, pitilessly–that category of entertainment that celebrates people who are lonely, misunderstood and defiantly eccentric but who, we’re supposed to understand, are secretly cooler than everybody else, if only they knew it. Sontag would locate the elusive line that separates Bad Quirk–annoying, self-satisfied idiosyncrasy–from Good Quirk–the authentic weirdness of a genuinely unique sensibility.
When you pick up a book titled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial; 277 pages) by Mary Ann Shaffer and (and!) Annie Barrows, you know you’re in for some quirk. It’s just not immediately clear which kind. The book’s heroine is a single woman in her early 30s. Her name is Juliet Ashton, and she is a journalist. The year is 1946. Juliet lives in London, a city from which the pall of World War II has not yet lifted. The rubble is still being cleared, the dead identified, the delicacies rationed.
This is an epistolary novel: we get to know Juliet and her friends through their letters and telegrams to one another. Juliet, a single woman in possession of a promising literary career, is coy about whether she is in want of a husband, but several candidates present themselves regardless, including her publisher Sidney and a rich, handsome American named Markham Reynolds. The countermelody begins when Juliet receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams. He lives on a farm on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, he explains, and he has acquired a used book with Juliet’s name and address written in it. He wonders whether she can help him obtain more books like it.
At this point, those well acquainted with quirk will have already recognized the fell shadow of another quirky epistolary work looming over Guernsey (don’t make me type out the whole title again): Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, in which an American book lover from the pre-Amazon era forms a transatlantic friendship with an English bookseller. Hanff’s book is a work of Good Quirk, the very best. But it has been done. And there is every indication that Guernsey will devolve from here into a rote exercise in Anglophilia and cozy, self-congratulatory bibliomania.
Oddly enough, it doesn’t. The book Dawsey has found is Charles Lamb’s Selected Essays of Elia. The Essays of Elia also crops up in 84, Charing Cross Road, but Guernsey takes it in a different direction: here we learn that Lamb’s sister Mary was a madwoman who stabbed their mother to death. This kind of morbid detail comes up a lot in Guernsey, and it cuts the treacle nicely. The authors have a bracing interest in suffering and death that knocks the cuteness right out of the book. When Dawsey remarks on how cheerful Juliet is, she bristles: “A sunny nature? A light heart? I have never been so insulted. Light-hearted is a short step from witless in my book.” And in this one.
Through Dawsey and his friends, we learn the story of the Germans’ World War II occupation of the island, a bleak affair of starvation, humiliation and slave labor. We get to know a cast of scuffed, scarred Guernseyans who formed a book club as an alibi to keep their doings secret from curious Nazis. Where Bridget Jones’ mascaraed eye might have turned away from such things (v. unpleasant!), Juliet’s focuses in on the story of a fiercely independent, bona fide–quirky Guernseyan named Elizabeth McKenna, now missing, who had an affair, and eventually a child, with a German officer.
Granted, the romance plot ticks along as well, as Juliet industriously and entertainingly whittles down her roster of suitors. But the authors show a firm hand with their characters. They even kill off a few, and the casualties aren’t cutesy stage deaths with finely calculated thematic meanings. Death, in its truest, most frightening incarnation, means nothing. The characters in Guernsey may meet cute, but they don’t die cute. They come by their quirkiness the hard way.
As it turns out, the writing of Guernsey was touched by death. The reason the book has two authors is that Shaffer died of cancer before publication, leaving Barrows, her niece, to see the book through to completion–a bittersweet ending in keeping with the dark shadows that gather in the corners of this otherwise lightsome book. It is, in the words of Lamb’s friend Coleridge, a sunny pleasure dome, with caves of ice.
The German occupation of the Channel Islands, recalled in letters between a London reporter and an eccentric gaggle of Guernsey islanders. This debut by an “aunt-niece” authorial team presents itself as cozy fiction about comfortably quirky people in a bucolic setting, but it quickly evinces far more serious, and ambitious, intent. In 1946, Juliet, famous for her oxymoronic wartime humor column, is coping with life amid the rubble of London when she receives a letter from a reader, Dawsey, a Guernsey resident who asks her help in finding books by Charles Lamb. After she honors his request, a flurry of letters arrive from Guernsey islanders eager to share recollections of the German occupation of the islands. (Readers may be reminded of the PBS series, Island at War.) When the Germans catch some islanders exiting from a late-night pig roast, the group, as an excuse for violating curfew and food restrictions, invents a book club. The “Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is born, affording Guernseyites an excuse to meet and share meager repasts. (The Germans have confiscated all the real food.) Juliet’s fractious correspondents, including reputed witch Isola, Booker, a Jewish valet who masquerades as a Lord, and many other L&PPPS members, reveal that the absent founder of their society, Elizabeth, loved Christian, a German captain. No one accuses Elizabeth of collaboration (except one crotchety islander, Adelaide) because Christian was genuinely nice. An act of bravery caused Elizabeth’s deportation to France, and her whereabouts remain unknown. The Society is raising four-year-old Kit, Elizabeth’s daughter by Christian. To the consternation of her editor and friend, Sidney, Juliet isentertaining the overtures, literary and romantic, of a dashing but domineering New York publisher, Markham. When Juliet goes to Guernsey, some hard truths emerge about Elizabeth’s fate and defiant courage. Elizabeth and Juliet are appealingly reminiscent of game but gutsy ’40s movie heroines. The engrossing subject matter and lively writing make this a sure winner, perhaps fodder for a TV series.
In January 1946, London is beginning to recover from World War II, and Juliet Ashton is looking for a subject for her next book. She spent the war years writing a column for the Times until her own dear flat became a victim of a German bomb. While sifting through the rubble and reconstructing her life, she receives a letter from a man on Guernsey, the British island occupied by the Germans. He’d found her name on the flyleaf of a book by Charles Lamb and was writing to ask if she knew of any other books by the author. So begins a correspondence that draws Juliet into the community of Guernsey and the members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Named to protect its members from arrest by the Germans, the society shares their unique love of literature and life with a newfound friend. Seeing this as the subject of her next book, Juliet sails to Guernsey-a voyage that will change her life. Reminiscent of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, this is a warm, funny, tender, and thoroughly entertaining celebration of the power of the written word. This marvelous debut novel, sure to have book club appeal, is highly recommended for all collections.