Fiction based on truth is the most compelling type of fiction, in my opinion. Because at no point can you settle your emotions by saying, “Well, this didn’t actually happen.” Stories about wars that didn’t happen feel much lighter than stories about wars that did happen – “fictional” or not. It’s the difference between Pirates of the Caribbean and We Were Soldiers; or ET vs Forrest Gump. No, Forrest Gump was not a real man. But he could have been. And the things happening in his world were real; therefore, he becomes real. The same thing happens in books.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (written by Mary Ann Shaffer) went from a book I’d never even heard of to a book I passionately enjoyed within the first three pages. Early on, I knew it would be a favourite - later on, my opinion hasn't changed. The structure of the book is different than most in that the story is told through correspondence; letters, written from one character to another.
Juliet, the main character, is a writer in her early 30’s who is living in Europe, post WWII. She is itching for new writing material, and Sidney (her publisher and best friend's older brother) agrees it's about time. The book opens as Juliet struggles to come up with a good enough subject to fill all those blank, awaiting pages. No sooner have we met her, than do we meet Mr. Dawsey Adams. Dawsey is from the tiny island of Guernsey, in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. He originally writes to ask a simple favour of Juliet, and through the letters that follow Juliet is introduced to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; a group of unlikely literary hounds that formed during the war. They started the Society to survive; they kept it going because they grew to love it, and to depend on it; and each other. The cast of characters expands and the stories they tell (as well as the characters themselves) quickly make their way into the affections and imagination of Juliet.
It’s happened a few times that I read a book and instantly identify with the main character; on many levels, I will feel as though we are the same person. Juliet is no different. This makes a book more interesting, to say the least. My emotions get snatched involuntarily from my chest and thrown onto the page, a lot more readily than I care to admit. As I’m reading through Guernsey, I'll read a thought of Juliet’s and it will feel like my thought; I will read what she says and it will feel like my sentence. When a book like this ends, I usually go through an odd sort of grieving process.
The Guernsey folk have become a group of people I care about greatly and hope to meet someday. Even though I know they are only characters in a book…I believe they are based on real people and I could therefore ask Dawsey to carve me a wooden mouse; if only I could get myself over to Guernsey.
In 50 more pages, I will be finished the book entirely. While I am dying to know what happens next and will therefore plow through those 50 pages as fast as I can, I already recognize that owning a copy Guernsey will very soon make its way to the top of my financial priority list. Pretty soon, I’ll have to give this copy back to Anita, and I’m not sure I want to be away from my friends for that long.
“I can’t remember the last time I discovered a novel as smart and delightful as this one, a world so vivid that I kept forgetting this was a work of fiction populated with characters so utterly wonderful that I kept forgetting they weren’t my actual friends and neighbors. Treat yourself to this book please—I can’t recommend it highly enough.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
Elizabeth, you read my mind.
*Update. I have just devoured those last 50 pages. Delicious.
My heart is now surrounded by mist.