Is it possible for a book written completely in an epistolary style and a movie adaptation that takes great liberties in plot to compliment each other perfectly? The answer is a resounding “yes.” I give you The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by the late Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece, Annie Barrows.
I will admit I began the book first and then abandoned it for several weeks. Reading a book that is all letters back and forth felt a bit tedious. (Although it may have been my own timing.) It was like opening a box of letters in someone’s attic and, while reading them, trying to create a timeline, a narrative, and full-bodied characters. My imagination at the time (or lack thereof) needed help. Shortly thereafter, a friend mentioned the movie’s release on Netflix and how much she loved it. Being a period piece, British, with four cast members from my beloved Downton Abbey was all I needed to know.
Soon I became engrossed in the lives and stories of London writer Juliet Ashton and her new pen pals and friends on the island of Guernsey. The movie’s casting, production quality, and acting more than made up for the changes it made to the book–changes I only realized later while reading. It gave faces, voices, and personalities to our darling, witty Juliet and Guernsey natives Dawsey, Isola, Eben, Amelia, Eli, and Kit, as well as the Society’s leader, Elizabeth McKenna, and Juliet’s publisher, Sydney Stark. All changes were immediately forgiven.
I know, this is sounding more like a movie critique than a book review…
Historically, the novel opens a window to a section of World War II that most of us have never known, the German occupation of the Island of Guernsey and the effect it had on the residents. The island was no more a refuge but a prison, with those living there completely cut off from news and communication with the rest of the world, including the United Kingdom, where the Guernsey children were sent. It is a life that we, who have never known war on the home-front, can scarcely imagine. There are a few scenes in the book that describe the horrors of the time that, gratefully, were omitted from the screen. Reading about them was enough for me.
That really is what the story is about–the power of the written word and the light it brings, especially when the world outside is so dark.
As a stand-alone novel, it is difficult for me to review it without including the film because they work in tandem so well. This is a rare occasion where watching the film first really worked for me when I read the book, and all I have to go on is my own experience. Still, that experience was a delightful one. I recommend them both whole-heartedly.