One of the biggest crowd-pleasers or sleeper lit hits of the year has been Mary Ann Shaffer's and Annie Barrows's novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's been getting a lot of press in book review sources, and it turns up as a buy-alike for almost every new novel you can search for in Amazon (meaning, quite simply, that a lot of people who buy and read literary novels have bought it--I almost said "bought and read it," but, of course, it's impossible to know if it's actually been read). I was going to stay away from it but when I saw it reviewed over at Jessica's Both Eyes book blog, I thought I had to give it a try.
There's a number of reasons I should have stayed away. 1. WWII era fiction annoys me (smacking, as it almost always does, of greatest generation hagiography). 2. I have a perverse tendency to dislike what everyone else loves (e.g., The Story of Edgar Sawtelle). 3. I always feel compelled to fight against sentimentality in all its shapes and forms.
All of those reasons, of course, would explain why this was not the book for me. I did read the whole thing, and actually liked it for about twenty pages. It's an epistolary novel, told almost entirely in letters. It's the story of the German occupation of Guernsey (one of Britain's Channel Islands) and the island's feisty occupants, who started a book group to cover up their morale-boosting and other anti-German activities (the "Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" of the title, so named because one of their members cooks up a potato peel pie recipe, as they are short of all other regular pie ingredients). The Society is found out after the war, when one of the Island's occupants, Dawsey Adams, writes to a British author in London to inquire about books by Charles Lamb (he found her name in a book by Lamb that he read; she was the book's previous owner).
So what's the problem? England, great. Epistolary novel, even better. Book about books, best. So why didn't I love it?
Thankfully, I don't have to explain why I disliked it. I am going to steal a phrase from Heather Smith, who, when reviewing book covers over at Bookslut, had this to say about the cover of Irene Nemirovsky's novel Suite Francaise*: "This is probably a bit unfair, but I am so tired of books about World War II and the Holocaust being tarted up as nostalgia porn." That is SO perfect, because that's exactly what the actual text of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society felt like to me. Nostalgia porn.
This particular piece of nostalgia porn simply rubbed me all sorts of wrong ways. In the beginning, when I read things like this, in the protagonist's letter: "Doesn't it seem shocking to have more stringent rationing after the war than during the war? I realize that hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe must be fed, housed, and clothed, but privately I resent it that so many of them are Germans" (p. 17), all I could think was, you know, I don't know that a lot of regular Germans had a ton to say about World War II (just like not all Americans have had a lot of say about Iraq). So that annoyed me. But then, when the authors made a point to make a German character nice, I thought, Oh brother, humanize the enemy, here's a little something for everyone. Frankly, the authors** couldn't win with me, although I really don't think it's their fault.
The moral of the story? I should stop picking up crowd-pleasers. I'm never going to like them...or am I? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion to this little story.
*Come on, look at those two covers. Total nostalgia porn.
**Mary Ann Shaffer died in early 2008, and from all accounts she did spend many years researching this novel, which was completed by her niece Annie Barrows. Like I needed to feel like any more of a monster for not liking it. Done, and done!