The Potato (Peel Pie) Eaters

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If you want to read and enrich both your time and mind, skip The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and read the authors of real literature, whose names are merely mentioned in passing by this pretentious novel:

  • Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)
  • Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights)
  • Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales)
  • Charles Dickens (The Pickwick Papers)
  • Charles Lamb (Selected Essays of Elia, and More Essays of Elia, and Selected Letters)
  • Wilfred Owen (The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Seneca (Letters from a Stoic)
  • William Shakespeare
  • Oscar Wilde

I’m happy to find justification for disliking The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  in this quote, gleaned from the pages of the very same novel in question:

“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”
Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It’s not a crime to write a mediocre book and I wouldn’t normally waste my time reviewing one (there are hundreds of thousands of books out there that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on) except that I was compelled to read this by a friend, and was disturbed to learn that this book is, besides being woefully run-of-the-mill, also a New York Times bestseller.

Worse than a writer who inflicts a sloppily written pretend-literary novel on the world, may be the frivolous readership that raises such a facetious product up and hails it as the next Diary of Anne Frank. “I can’t remember the last time I discovered a novel as smart and delightful as this one,” gushes Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book Eat, Pray, Love inspired reviews similar to this one. Such enthusiastic praise reminds me of a strange woman’s impassioned declaration to me, years ago, that the Baz Luhrmann musical Moulin Rouge “changed [her] life.” *awkward silence* And it wasn’t because she had a part in the movie. I was embarrassed for her.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is warm milky pap for anyone who wants to escape to La-La Land for a little bit, and doesn’t want to spend any critical thought on what they consume. It is a two-dimensional feelgood novel of paper cut-out characters—the bright eyed and bushy tailed heroine, thoroughly dastardly villains, likeable eccentric characters not unlike the talking candlestick or teapot from Disney’s Beauty and The Beast—and hackneyed literary devices forcing the action along. The epistolary format was poorly handled, with characters writing unlikely things in their letters because the author couldn’t think of a better way to introduce the information.

The protagonist has the limited vocabulary, facile thoughts, and winsome manner of, again, a Disney heroine, despite being a grown woman and, we are told, a successful author in post-WW2 England, just one year after it ended. It’s hard to warm to her infantile concerns, or take her seriously, given the historical setting of a world war’s aftermath. I don’t know any grown women who would ‘prattle’ the way Juliet Ashton does. Not even in peacetime.

Events in the plot are contrived and improbable. A community of isolated and war-brutalized Guernsey Islanders welcome a sunny and inquisitive stranger into their private lives: sharing their stories of hardship, horror, heartache and local gossip with her, loving her within days of her arrival on Guernsey, and installing her as the focal point of their social group…as though she were some sort of vital torchbearer and pillar of the community, and not what she actually comes across as being: an airhead who writes “Little Girl” letters, spends most of her time on the island nurturing a crush on a tall, dark & handsome pig farmer (of the “strong & silent” tribe of men, with an endearing taste for Charles Lamb’s essays…sigh…so dreamy), whilst rejecting the tenacious overtures of an unpleasant suitor: the wealthy American…a calculating, imperious, cruel and chauvinistic Markham V. Reynolds, Jr…. Ah, Mark, enchanté, but I feel we have met before, no? Weren’t you in every second Mills & Boon romance I read when I was 15?

The novel is styled as “a book about books”, though it’s really more about an author who likes to name-drop the authors of great books into her own not-so-great book.  The “literary credentials” of the Potato Peel Pie Society are established by a few real books’ titles at the Society’s meetings, but none of the powerful ideas for which those authors are acclaimed come to bear upon the lives of the characters who are supposedly reading them, or upon the plot of this novel. Somehow, a goat or whatever manages to eat the notes before the meeting, and we are left with erudition merely hinted at but never truly in evidence.

Juliet’s calling as a writer is symbolised by her decision to “research” (rummage through the personal effects) the private life of the enigmatic Elizabeth McKenna: liberated firebrand, Society founder, victim of Nazis…whom the islanders loved more than they love Juliet and who, from what I can gather, was a more interesting, intelligent, courageous, radical, passionate and worldly woman than Juliet will ever be…so much, in fact, that it’s a good thing she was conveniently dead and out of the way when the novel started, or the book might have been about her, instead (save that the author probably would not have been up to the task of making a believable person out of McKenna, either.)

With not even the saving grace of beautiful language, resonance, poetry, or any real depth, how is it that this novel was a New York Times bestseller? And shouldn’t we be a little worried that this, along with the mummy-porn superstar Fifty Shades of Grey and Eat, Pray, Love—Hollywood’s idea of a spiritual journey that is also Instagram-able—are New York Times bestsellers? Are what the majority of people are reading and, worse, claiming to be “life-changing”?

I suspect I gave this book one star because there’s nowhere I can give its readership one star. On the one hand, the novel is discourteous to its readers because it asks an adult audience to put discernment and intelligence aside, in order to digest it. On the other hand, it has been quite a “successful” novel, implying that its audience thoroughly deserves the discourtesy, by not knowing the difference between good and poor writing.
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6 thoughts on “The Potato (Peel Pie) Eaters

  1. I liked this book, not because it was great fiction (it’s not), but because I learned about what happened on Guernsey and it inspired me to order some non-fiction books about it. it was a good beach read, I enjoyed it and promptly forgot about it. much as I would enjoy a piece of candy. it was good for what it was, a mindless read. I do much prefer the authors you highlight though, for a good meaty read.

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  2. Thank you for sparing me even considering reading it (not that I was). I rarely read “best sellers,” for just the reasons you have mentioned. And I found the movie Moulin Rouge life-changing only in the sense that I have avoided Baz Lurhmann movies ever since. It was cringe-worthy awful, in my opinion. I, too, read mostly non-fiction.

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