Saturday, July 26, 2008

'Guernsey' refreshes the art of epistolary writing

The epistolary novel has become a rare form with the advent of e-mail, though e-mails were used to good effect in Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door. More recently, Andrew Sean Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli used the epistolary form to popular acclaim.

Now, another novel promises to revive this lost art. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes the form of letters written to and by Juliet Ashton, close on the heels of World War II. Juliet gained fame as the writer of a syndicated humor column, "Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War."

Soon after the war, she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, founder of the literary society in Guernsey, a small island off the British coast, and the only English province the Nazis manage to control. Dawsey is an admirer of author Charles Lamb, one of whose books, owned by Juliet, has somehow reached him, a situation that leads her to remark that "perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."

This happens amid Juliet's search for matter for her next book, a concern expressed in letters to her publisher and friend, Sidney, and his sister, Sophie. Juliet has known the brother-sister duo since teenage and shares an easy conviviality with them, evoked wonderfully in their letters to one another.

Juliet's interest in the Guernsey Literary Society, which begins with discovering the roots of its eccentric name, soon develops into full-fledged interaction with its many members. There is the reserved but warm Dawsey, the magical potions-churning Isola, the cautious Amelia and many others. Through their letters, Juliet gains a sense of what the Nazi occupation entailed for the tiny island, and how the absence of one member from their midst continues to be a haunting memory.

Drawn to the fascinating story of the islanders, Juliet decides to visit. Written in warm, life-affirming prose by the aunt-niece duo of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (the former died earlier this year), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an ideal choice for book groups, and also for individual readers.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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