Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Our book today is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and if your first reaction is anything like ours here at Stevereads, you're headed out the door with a tightly courteous little rictus on your face. Yes, yes: the book has perhaps the most regrettable title in recent memory - it reeks of twee preciousness, that heavy-handed almost leering juxtaposition of art and quotidia that wants to intrigue you so desperately it almost immediately repulses you.

What can we say? Mistakes happen, and perhaps the monstrous title of this book wasn't strictly the idea of its two authors - publishers can be a crass lot, and publicists are even worse - gawd only knows the algorithms they use to arrive at the products they push. In any case, disregard the title! Disregard the title and read the book.

The book is just about as charming and heartfelt and utterly involving a work of fiction as any we here at Stevereads have read this year, and we, we need hardly remind you, read lots of novels in any given quarter.

This story takes place in postwar England, in a time of rationing and coupons when everybody has their own memory of the Blitz and the bombings. At least one person made out well from those horrible years: writer Juliet Ashton, whose "Izzie Bickerstaff" columns gave a war-weary populace a few grim laughs at the worst of times. She's stopped writing those columns now, but their resale in book form has made her comparatively wealthy and sought-after on the admittedly meager postwar book-tour circuit. This is an epistolary novel (gawd help us) that hauls the reader into Juliet's world so quickly and so confidently that before you know it, you're every bit as involved in the lives of all the characters as the characters are themselves.

And such characters! Juliet is the best of them, but she's given some serious competition by the members of the eponymous literary society itself, each one of whom bonded to a love of reading (and bonded to each other) under the grimly capricious rule of the Nazis. Through the letters these characters exchange, the reader is taken on a marvelous journey, one none of you should miss. The book's two authors are to be hugely congratulated - and urged to collaborate again.

Epistolary novels are the hardest of all to quote in a review, and this book is no exception. Rather than try to give you all a sample of its glories and possibly fail (unthinkable, we know, but still), we here at Stevereads will instead urge you in the strongest possible terms: when The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes out, read it - borrow it, buy it, however you do it, but read it. Ignore the title, and you'll be very much pleased.

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