Monday, June 29, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I knew I wanted to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because of Anna's enthusiastic review at Diary of An Eccentric and the other positive reviews I've noted over the past year or so (Bermuda Onion, Caribous Mom, Farm Lane Books). So when a friend who said she liked it offered to lend it to me recently, I decided to read it next. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I found it enjoyable, and certainly a fast read, but I was disappointed that the characters weren't better developed and that the book discussions were a fairly shallow and peripheral part of the novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, so character development can be tricky, but it's often one of the most enjoyable aspects of the genre. Here, I was left wondering why on earth the main character, Juliet, likes a four-year-old girl she's just met well enough to take care of her almost exclusively within days of their meeting, and why the girl's other caretakers allow it. The letters suggest that the other caretakers already "love" Juliet before they meet her, from reading her letters, but I would need more than a few month's worth of letters before I handed over any four-year-old in my care.

I was also unsatisfied with the descriptions of Juliet's laconic true love, Dawsey, a man that her best friend describes as "quiet, capable, trustworthy--oh Lord, I've made him sound like a dog--and he has a sense of humor." The thing is, I thought he continued to sound like a dog right to the end of the novel, if a dog could have a sense of humor and a love for reading Charles Lamb.

One of the most quoted sentences from the novel comes from one of the best-delineated characters, Isola, who says "I don't believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Bronte, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower's Ill-Used by Candlelight. Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." That last sentence is a good one, all right, but much of its charm stems from the particularity of the detail in the preceding sentence. This novel would be much better if all its observations on reading were similarly particularized. One character says he loves reading Seneca, but if a love of Seneca is to be communicated to the novel's readers, there should be some more specific reasons than just that the character has lived through wartime.

Being not entirely immune to this novel's charms, however, I very much enjoyed the story of how Granny Pheen came to have a series of letters written by none other than Oscar Wilde. Any novel that worships Wilde as much as this one does is a friend of mine. Just not a very good friend. Not the kind that lets you get too close.

I occasionally find other novels similarly frustrating, in that I feel I'd like to know the characters better, including finding out what they value in the books they say they love--I got the same kind of feeling reading Fowler's The Jane Austen book club, and a bit of it reading Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Maybe it's just that I wouldn't be a good fit for most book clubs--and that's why I've never joined one. If you have, are you satisfied with the level of discussion?

6 comments:

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Maybe it is about expectations. I didn't expect to like the book. Based on the title, it looked like something I would avoid. But my mom sent me a copy so I gave it a go and enjoyed it thoroughly. Although I don't disagree with your criticisms, they did not disturb my enjoyment of the book as a whole. But I also knew that one of the authors was the author of children's books popular in AJ's school library and I'd read a couple of those, so that affected my expectations as well. As for the book group question, I started to respond here, but it was rapidly becoming too long to be seemly, so perhaps I'll answer at my place later.

Lass said...

My mom recommended this book to me after her book club read it...and I was similarly unimpressed.

C Schu. said...

I agree with all your criticisms and I still enjoyed the book thoroughly. I think this was, perhaps, for two reasons. First, with all the other things cluttering up my brain these days, I am craving books that I can read through, enjoy and that don't demand too much of me. (This one fit the bill, exactly.) I was also interested to learn more about the fate of the Channel Islands during WWII. I have always been interested in the time period, for complicated reasons, and this was something that I didn't know much about.

It left me wanting to know more, so I went off in search of more historical information. I guess that says something about why I liked the book.

Not being the literary professional that you are, I enjoyed what literary interest there was, but wasn't concerned that it didn't dig too deeply. (I completely agree with you about the Jane Austen Book Club, but this one didn't bother me the same way.)

I have often thought I would like to be part of a book club, but I think I might have trouble finding the right people with whom to engage. I would want to be somewhere in the middle between a very intellectual discussion that probes the work in a serious way and a superficial discussion that doesn't go beyond just having enjoyed the book. Also, I would want a book club that discussed books somewhere between the "fluffy" and the deeply intellectual. I think that to really enjoy it I would require some very hard middle ground to hit.

bermudaonion said...

Sorry you didn't love this as much as I did. I've passed my copy on to my mother and sister and they loved it too. Great review.

Anna said...

I, too, wish the characters had been more well developed, but that's the epistolary structure for you. Sorry you were somewhat disappointed. Thanks for linking to my review.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Nicole said...

I think with book clubs you have to be careful and choose one that actually want to read and discuss the same books that you feel are worthy of discussion. If people have different expectations of the books then it is usually a disaster.