A few posts ago, I wrote about my second writing critique class in Oxford with Barry Hannah… the one in which he told us “You’ve got to make me care about these people, whether they’re fictional or real. If I don’t have a reason to care four pages into the story, I’m not going to keep reading.”
Barry’s words were ringing in my ears when I started reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Let me say up front that the only reason I read the book was because it was highly recommended by two dear friends who generally have excellent taste in books. And, it’s this month’s selection for a book club I used to participate in, and I was thinking about returning to the fold. The club meets tomorrow night, and I’m looking forward to the fellowship, and to hearing what it was that everyone loved about the book. As a writer, I care what intelligent readers think. But, do I care about the characters peopling The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?
Not really. I really didn't get "hooked" on the story until about page 125, almost half way through the book. With most books I would have quit much earlier, but I had made a sort of commitment to myself to read this so I pressed ahead. I know I’m in a huge minority since it’s a best seller. But I also know that I’m old enough to trust my own taste… in art, music, architecture, movies, clothes, food, and definitely literature. I can definitely appreciate the talent involved in a book, painting, song, movie, etc., even when it’s not my “taste.” Here’s a graphic example: “No Country for Old Men” was an excellent movie. Am I glad I saw it? Definitely NOT. The images of evil remain with me to this day and I found nothing redemptive about it whatsoever. Still, the writing, acting and filming were excellent.
That said, I’ll try to cast an objective net across the Guernsey Literary Society book and see if I can catch a few gems to share:
The most redemptive quality of the book for me is the author’s voice—she reminds me a bit of Flanner O’Connor. Can you hear O’Connor in these phrases?
“Lamb also taught Hunt’s youngest daughter to say the Lord’s Prayer backward. You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.”
And this one:
“I know that I am fortunate to have any place at all to live in London, but I much prefer whining to counting my blessings.”
And especially this one, since Miss O’Connor raised peacocks:
“I have a parrot in my keeping too—her name is Zenobia and she does not like men.”
These quotes are from various characters, but the author’s voice still comes through, to me. Here’s one more example:
“Did any of you ever think that along about the time the motion of a SOUL gave out, Freud popped up with the EGO to take its place? The timing of the man! Did he not pause to reflect? Irresponsible old coot! It is my belief that men must spout this twaddle about egos, because they fear they have no soul!”
But apart from the author’s voice, I couldn’t find a whole lot more to praise. The structure of the book—a collection of letters—left me a bit confused at times about the action of the story. I found myself having to refer back to the labels in front of each letter and try to remember who the character was. (But I had to do that all the time while reading The Brothers Karamazov, so maybe this is the result of my feeble brain rather than an inadequate literary technique.)
Really, in the final analysis, I think I was just bored with these people and their lives, and even the setting, which is beautiful in many ways. Someone who visited the Channel Islands did these three beautiful videos if you want to see some images of the book’s setting: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Actually, I might have liked the book more if I had gone to the website first, and watched this video of Annie Barrows talking about the book. The video is more entertaining than the book, in my opinion. But again, I’ve probably got a degree of ADD, growing up watching television more than reading books. Ah, the consequences of a poorly-spent youth. It would have also probably inspired me more if I had heard these excerpts read first.
Anyway, I’m going to the book club tomorrow night, with an open mind. If you’re thinking of reading the book, you might want to check out the “Virtual Book Club” questions for readers.
And now, on to the next book on my shelf, Eat, Drink, and Be From Mississippi by Nanci Kincaid. (Watch for a review soon.)