Stories of Connection: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
“Perhaps there is
some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” - letter from Juliet to Dawsey
After I peeled four pounds of potatoes for a friendsgiving selection of mashed potatoes, I began to push the potato peels into the trash when I had the thought that perhaps I should try making a potato peel pie. Eben Ramsey would sign off on that idea. My curiosity may have inspired me to find out the process of making such a pie had I not been rushing against a clock. Later that night, after I’d returned home from a delicious dinner, and settled in to an empty apartment, I decided to rewatch The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
There are some stories that I find myself returning to over and over again, and since it’s release on Netflix in June, I’ve been drawn again and again to this world and its characters. Based on the novel of the same name by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the film encompasses things I love to find in a story - literary based, beautiful scenery, a love story of the minds, baking and gin jokes, tailored women’s suits - it also touches on the question that I’ve often thought about which is can books bring people together and can they help to cure painful wounds. I’ve been ruminating on this question even more recently as our current times feel full of uncertainty. We need connection, the company of other people, fellowship, kindness, and when the world becomes too fast paced or filled with angry worries, we need to come together even more. Is it silly to think that the ideas of books could help in these times? That it could possibly be a way of connecting with people?
For those not familiar with the story and its mouthful of a title, it follows the correspondence of writer Juliet Ashton with the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and the way these budding connections grow into deep friendships and love. (For the purposes of clarification, I’ll be referring to the events as they are in the film, rather than the book. The novel is rich with details that were left out of the film, but that by no means makes the viewing experience any less layered.)
It is 1946. London is starting the process of rebuilding after the war. Juliet Ashton is searching for a new apartment after hers was bombed during the Blitz, all while she’s on a book tour promoting her latest book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. Izzy was her pseudonym during the war and her way to write about what was happening all around her. This book tour is done to please her agent and dear friend, Sydney Stark but Juliet’s focus is on starting a new life. She’s dating the wildly handsome and rich Markham Reynolds who wants her to consider moving to 5th Avenue and has the habit of sending her bouquets of flowers wherever she goes; and she’s searching for her next writing assignment. Something personal and published under her own name this time. It is at this crossroad of ideas that she receives her first letter from Dawsey Adams, who happens to be the new owner of her edition of Charles Lamb’s essays. This is the start of their written correspondence, and it’s through Dawsey that Juliet is compelled to visit Guernsey and attend a society meeting. She wants to write about the society and their experiences during the occupation. Neither party could anticipate how much they’ll change each other’s lives once they meet. Books provided a sense of normality to both Juliet and the society members during the war, and it brought these neighbors together in a way that nothing else ever could. Well, that and a roasted pig. Juliet feels this same pull to the society as we do, and their connection is formed due to their love and need of the books around them.
When I was in London, I had the intention of searching for an edition of Charles Lamb’s writing while I was at Foyles. Alas, I forgot about this search until I had already left the store. It is at Foyles that Juliet seeks out and finds a copy of Lamb’s Stories from Shakespeare to send Dawsey, and it is also here where she performs one of her book readings to promote Izzy. I am sure the store has changed over the years from the version it was in the late-1940s, yet visiting the store today, it’s magic is still tangible and vibrant. I could see why it would entice Juliet to visit.
The film brings to life aspects of the novel’s epistolary structure. Which when read, feels very much in line with 84, Charing Cross Road. (For the literary fan, the Foyles flagship store located at 107 Charing Cross Road is located a few blocks down from where Marks & Co used to stand at number 84.) As the reader, you learn about the characters through their voices and what they say or do not say to each other in their letters. I had reread the book at the start of the year in anticipation of the film. I first read the book in 2015 when I was still working at the agency and had been reading it for almost a month at that point when I began to take it to lunch with me. I would bring my packed lunch to the building’s courtyard, sit in a folding chair, and read. The characters spoke to me. I was enthralled by their voices and experiences. Rereading the book, I was once again caught at the beauty of their correspondence, and the wit at which Juliet jumped off the page. Yet hearing their voices and seeing these characters on screen brought the book to life for me in a whole new way. I already loved this story but seeing Juliet come to life as she stood on Guernsey with the sea breeze whipping her hair to and fro, her thoughts filled with wanting to find out what happened to Elizabeth, made her all the more real and relatable. Lily James also captures the Juliet we met on the page and breathes air into her. It’s hard to believe she’s not walking through Guernsey as we speak.
Juliet finds kinship on Guernsey in a way she hadn’t been anticipating. She feels Elizabeth’s presence on the island and in her cottage. She discovers more about Elizabeth's life through her budding relationship with Kit and walking through their shared footsteps. Her feelings for Dawsey grow in a way that was never expected - the way these types of feelings tend to grow in real life: all at once. I don’t think Juliet went out looking for a community, yet it was the thing she needed, and in many ways, it found her the moment Dawsey’s letter about Charles Lamb landed on her doorstep. There’s something almost serendipitous about her journey. The seeds of her life were planted along many plains - in this case, one of her books - and from these seeds sprouted new life and stems which flourished and became the people she most needed. And just like real life, she went to a new place that made her feel like she was always meant to be there and live, and found the thing inside her that had remained dormant and was finally given the water to grow.
The part that always strikes me when I watch Guernsey is that the characters on the island believe their lives to be inconsequential and unremarkable. The fact that anyone would travel all this way from London to meet and hear their stories is shocking to them. Eben’s face when Juliet first meets him at the post office says it all. He’s surprised that not only has she traveled all this way but she came specifically to find him and the other society members. I still get that feeling in my life when people take the time to send a thoughtful message or tell me how much I matter to them. It’s been known to bring tears to my eyes as it’s something that most people don’t say or get to hear. Taking a moment to appreciate a person does so much for the soul. It’s so easy to feel unremarkable or like a cog in the machine as the daily existence wears you down. All it takes sometimes is the smallest gesture to feel seen: a cup of tea made just for you, a note to see how you’re doing, or a lunch to catch-up.
This sense of connection is at the heart of Guernsey, and it's perhaps why it's a story I find myself turning to in these times. The connections Elizabeth, Dawsey, Eben, Amelia, Eli, Eben, and Isola found during their bleakest and darkest times were through the books they shared, but it was through their openness to each other that they found true connection and friendship. Hearing the voices of the society during the end credits sums up their relationship, and remains one of my favorite parts of the film. You can’t seem them holding their meetings but you know that they’re sitting in Amelia’s living room, one society member holding the stage at a time as they recite or argue about portions of their favorite books.
Nothing will quite compare to my first viewing and the emotional response that it released in me. I put on the film during a quiet afternoon at home, after many months of waiting for it to be released. I found that many scenes delivered a type of gut punch in the same way that they did on the page. Eli being sent off to England. Eben meeting Juliet for the first time at the post office. Isola and Juliet staying up all night drinking gin and talking about their lives. Juliet staring at her typewriter unable to write after returning back to London, that moment when she gives in and writes for days and then edits over toast and tea. The last twenty minutes caused the dam to break and it all started with this scene of Juliet trying to find her words, her voice, surrounded by gifted roses. The keys to the typewriter eventually unlock and the words begin pouring out as she writes all the thing she wishes she could say into her manuscript and into her letter to the society. That's a sensation I can identify with as a writer, but also as a person right now. Finding the right words to say can sometimes be paralyzing yet often, you need to sit at the page and figure it out. That’s another appeal of this story. It's watching all the pieces of life and the stories we come to embody come together in a single place. I get that same sensation when I stand in a room of my closest friends or family as we celebrate a moment or share a plate of food together. It's these connections that make her journey and enrich her life, and it's ultimately what makes Juliet want to stay on Guernsey. In the darkest time she found light through the people around her and that's something that reigns true today.
Books can’t solve everything, and in truth, they might not be able to solve much on their own, yet it is through the readers and champions of the ideas contained between those covers that can change the world. At this point in time, it feels like action is more needed than anything. Can action take on different forms? As I write this there are devastating fires burning throughout my state and the administration is saying that it’s the fault of our forest maintenance that these fires have started. Our country is divided almost down the middle on fundamental issues and there’s no real sign of it stopping. Rather it’s looking more like things are headed down a darker path. Now seems like the time to make our voices heard more rather than sitting in silence, and to advocate for change, real change.
Yet is it also seems like a time for compassion and empathy. There is still light all around us when you take a moment to look for it. It’s in the way that someone invites you into their home on Thanksgiving when you’re away from your family and are offered to share a meal together. It’s in the way that someone holds the door for you when your arms are full of groceries, or the way in which people are coming together throughout the communities of Northern and Southern California to help those who have been effected by these fires. In the same way that people of my Colorado community came together when we faced a forest fire six years ago. Penguin Random House announced recently that they would be providing book donations to bookstores affected by these fires – a wonderful initiative and offer. Books do have a way to bringing people together, even if it’s small.
Emma Staub wrote a wonderful article for Bon Appetit about Thanksgiving traditions. At the end, she talks about opening her bookstore Books Are Magic briefly last Thanksgiving and how she helped a customer find a book for his holiday. She says, “He was visiting family, knocked out of his routine, and needed a book. And we were there. Mike was right: It felt good to be a small part of someone else’s day.” So while there is a lot of darkness around, remember that there is also light when you need it, and while we all need to do our part to raise up our voices for the causes that we feel most need it and we are most passionate about, it’s also important to remember that you can make a big difference by being a small part of someone’s day. And sometimes that involves finding just the right book for them in the moment that they need it, as we all need a break for compassion.
The photos are screen grabs from the official trailer as released by Netflix.
The cover photo is a still from the film and is part of the imdb photo gallery for the film.