Monday, December 19, 2011

bright day is done and we are for the dark

First Book of Break:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
-Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a tale that lives up to every inch of its delightfully quaint and haphazard little title. This epistolary novel, with hints and inspirations of Alcott and flavors of Anne of Green Gables, tells of how the glamorous young authoress Juliet Ashton thinks she has found the inspiration for her Next Big Work in the endearing and quirky inhabitants of Guernsey, but by entering into the seemingly simple and homespun world of the small channel island, gets much more than she bargained for.

A twist of fate brings one of Juliet's old Charles Lamb books into the possession of one Dawsey Adams, an Islander, and a correspondence ensues that eventually changes Juliet from an "Outlander" to an Islander. Despite Juliet's life in London, complete with teas and book signings, dodgy muckrakers, a new flat to replace her old apartment (a victim of the London Blitzkrieg), and elegant-with-a-touch-of-danger-and-typical-American-overbearingness suitor, she is intrigued by the dark-eyed Island man's fascinating tales of the Germans' occupation of Guernsey during the War, and the quiet and but persistent resistance efforts of the habitants of the island.

One of the most delicious features of the book is its epistolary format. There's nothing more intimate or character-informing than letter-writing, and it's much more egalitarian. It gives each character a chance to speak their mind, and how they write letters to different characters speaks volumes about their feelings for them. And it's a literary junkie's delight. The Islanders discover Seneca, the Brontës, Chaucer, Christie, and Austen, and their deft summaries of and encounters with each are a joy.

At the beginning of the novel, various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society at the behest of Mrs. Amelia Maugery, their ringleader, as it were, write Juliet letters regarding the occupation and the Society. One of my favorites is Mr. Clovis Fossey's treatise on poetry and courtship, which I think give an accurate sample of the book's spirit:

"Then in 1942 I started to court the Widow Hubert. When we'd go for a walk, she'd march a few steps ahead of me on the path and never let me take her arm. She let Ralph Murchey take her arm, so I knew I was failing in my suit.

Ralph, he's a bragger when he drinks, and he said to all in the tavern, "Women like poetry. A soft word in their ears and they melt--a grease spot on the grass." That's no way to talk about a lady, and I knew right then he didn't want the Widow Hubert for her own self, the way I did. He wanted only her grazing land for his cows. So I thought--If it rhymes the Widow Hubert wants, I will find me some.

I went to see Mr. Fox in his bookshop and asked for some love poetry. He didn't have many books left by that time--so he gave me some fellow named Catullus. He was a Roman. Do you know the kind of things he said in verse? I knew I couldn't say those words to a nice lady.[...] I told my friend Eben I never saw such spiteful stuff. He said to me I had just not read the right poets. He took me to his cottage and lent me a little book of his own. It was the poetry of Wilfred Owen. He was an officer in the First World War, and he knew what was what and called it by its right name. I was there, too, at Passchendaele, and I knew what he knew, but I could never put it into words for myself.

Well, after that, I though there might be something to this poetry after all. I began to go to meetings, and I'm glad I did, else how would I have read the works of William Wordsworth--he would have stayed unknown to me. I learned many of his poems by heart.
Anyway I did win the hand of the Widow Hubert--my Nancy. I got her to go for a walk along the cliffs one evening, and I said, "Lookie there, Nancy. The gentleness of Heaven broods o'er the sea--Listen the mighty Being is awake." She let me kiss her. She is now my wife.

Yours truly,
Clovis Fossey"

It's the most adorable, insightful, homespun-ly wise book I've read in ages. It's one of those books that breaks your heart, because you wish every single character in the book was real. And all you want is to sit down with Isola, and get the entire inside scoop of all the doings and comings in St. Martin's parish, talk to Sidney about Oscar Wilde, walk along the cliffs with Dawsey and Juliet and see the sun sparkle and dance on the channel's water, and play with small little Kit, and receive lessons in lisp-ing. Utterly delightful.

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