Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society

"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books."
- Isola Pribby (p. 53)

This is turning out to be a red-letter summer for the kind of good books to which Ms. Pribby, a central character in The Guernsey Literary Potato-Peel Pie Society. First, there was Three Cups of Tea. Then, Expecting Adam. (I'm just sharing the highlights.) Then, over vacation last week, Guernsey.

All three passed my "I laughed; I cried; it was better than Cats" test with flying colors.

This is a book whose title alone attracted my attention one day in a bookstore. Then, Nicole read and recommended. Then Melissa Wiley, one of my favorite book recommenders, chimed in. Then, I saw it priced under ten dollars at Costco. I was a goner.

The book is entirely composed of letters among its characters, the principal of whom is Juliet Ashton, a British writer emerging, with her compatriots, from the terrors of World War II. Actually, although Juliet is technically the main character, she has a shadow doppelganger in the form of a character who could also be called the protagonist but (spoiler alert!) never actually appears firsthand in the book.

The story, and the community created by the Islanders drawn together by peril and tragedy, becomes so irresistible to the reader that it's almost impossible to believe that they don't truly exist. One roots for them, in all their collective and individual idiosyncrasies, from the very beginning, and can only close the last chapter with the fervent hope that the one surviving author will put forth a sequel. This book manages to be both gritty and tender, to be charming without in any way cloying -- all because of the way the magnificent cast of characters speak (write) for themselves.

If there is one fly in the ointment, it's a very personal one for me. I quote:

"... [Sir Ambrose] doted upon her in a way that encouraged her besetting sin: lack of humility. The decay of standards is the cross of our times, and nowhere is this regrettable decline more apparent than in Elizabeth McKenna ...
Yours in Christian Consternation and Concern,
Adelaide Addison."

Elizabeth, of course, turns out to be the heroine everyone else worships in the story, and the message is clear: Elizabeth is far away the moral superior of the pious, hypocritical, Miss Addison. Who of course, is the one self-proclaimed Christian in the book.

Sigh. This proclivity of writers of otherwise captivating, splendidly written books, to present us with the token "Christian" as a narrow-minded religious freak, a Pharisee with nothing better to do than expose others' moral faults and browbeat them with Scripture does grow wearisome. It's a trick as old as the hills, I can assure you from my background as an English major. There are some of us who, as Christians, steer as a wide a berth as possible from casting stones and endeavor to live in a manner that genuinely reflects Christ's love and grace for people. We realize, more fully each day, that our own imperfections outweigh the faults of anyone around us, that we're able to forgive because we've been forgiven, and love because we're so wholly loved (as are our friends and neighbors). Is it just possible for someone to believe in the Bible and ALSO be a fairly cool person? According to a wide swathe of modern and Victorian literature, apparently not.

So give us a break, already!

OK, that said, I think I'd still give the book four and a half stars.


Stephanie said...

Sounds good. I'll put it on my list.

Naomi said...

As for me, Tamara recommended it to me. Then I recommended it to my aunt and to Amber. Then I saw that Nicole happened upon it, etc. Isn't it a wonderful book!? I was very sad to know it's the only one by the author. I immediately wanted to read more of their works. I guess we are all now part of the Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society. Shew. What a mouthful!

nicole r said...

definitely worth some miff-age, my not commenting sooner on this! in my defense i DID read it and LOVE LOVE LOVE it right away. your post i mean, obviously the book as well. things have just been way crazy -- although it always feels a little flat trying to convince mothers of small children that MY life is crazy :)

this book is SILL one of my top 5. i was thrilled to find that Time Magazine ranked it one of the top 10 books of 2008, too :)

Anonymous said...

My only other complaint is the homosexual storyline. Why does it have to be everywhere?