Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
*This is a spoiler-light review of the Netflix film adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.*
If the title sounds almost nonsensically long, it’s because it came about by accident.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, called just “the Society” by its members, was created in 1941 when the British Island of Guernsey was under German occupation, in order to stop the Germans from finding out why they were really gathered: an illegal pig roast.
As Society member Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) writes to Juliet Ashton (Lily James) a handful of years later, what the starving inhabitants of the island needed more than food was companionship, and the society members found that in each other; more, through the medium of literature, they forged a bond with each other as close as that of any family. Five years later, where the story picks up in 1946, the Society is still meeting and reading once a week.
It’s Dawsey’s desire for a particular book that brings the society into the sphere of Juliet, a young author who has caught her break with her second published book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. In 1946, the scars of World War II still lay heavy over London and over Juliet, who is struggling to adjust to her new place among society’s elite, despite the efforts of her publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode) and her American boyfriend, Mark (Glen Powell). Her family, we learn, was lost to her during the war, which makes the pull of the Society, when she learns of it, all the stronger.
Dawsey first writes to Juliet when he discovers her name and address inside an old book — a book they both loved — and decides to ask for her assistance in locating another book that isn’t available on Guernsey. Juliet purchases the book and sends it to him, in exchange for the answers to three questions:
Why did a roast pig have to be kept secret?
How could a pig cause you to begin a literary society?
What is a potato peel pie?
The two almost immediately feel a kinship for each other (as Juliet says, “It was more of a sense that I was writing to someone who already understood me, I didn’t have to explain myself to, much”), the type of connection that so often comes from a shared love of a story, and Juliet decides — rather rashly, as she’s in the middle of a promotional tour for her book — that she needs to visit Guernsey and participate in one of the Society’s meetings.
The shadow of war hangs thick over Guernsey as well, tangible in the tangles of barbed wire that are strewn along a beach Dawsey and Juliet walk along, a beach that had once been covered in landmines; but leaving deep emotional scars in the members of the Society also, for one of their own, Elizabeth, had been arrested by the Germans and taken off island in 1942, and not heard from or seen since.
Drawn to the island by the promise of a Society that loves books as much as she does and a topic for an article she promised to write for the London Times, Juliet stays for the mystery of finding out what became of Elizabeth, a story everyone she meets on the island is remarkably tight-lipped about. Elizabeth left behind a daughter, now four years old, as well as a hole in the life of each of the Society’s members.
Perhaps this is why Juliet, having lost a family herself, fits in so well and so extraordinarily quickly with them. While London slowly starts to move on from the war and look to the future, in Guernsey it’s like the war never left, and it never will leave until they discover what became of Elizabeth. I think this too appeals to Juliet, who herself isn’t quite ready to move on.
Like many of my favourite stories, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society uses the tragic backdrop of World War II to tell tales of the lives of ordinary people who lived through it, by whatever means they could; in this case, with the help of books and companionship.
This Netflix adaptation of the book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (which I haven’t yet read, so I can’t speak to the accuracy) is a mystery, a romance, and a historical drama all rolled into one; it’s a beautifully filmed portrayal of what it means to be family, both those we are born to and those we choose for ourselves; it reminds us that those we’ve lost live on in memory long after they’re gone; and it tells us that books have a unique power to bind people together.
In some form or another, books bring together the following host of characters, who become the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society of past and present:
Juliet Ashton, struggling with her newfound fortune and relative fame, feeling that it’s undeserved when so many are not as lucky;
Dawsey Adams, once a pig farmer but forced to grow potatoes during the occupation, becoming the father to the daughter of his lost friend, who blames himself for Elizabeth’s arrest;
Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), founder of the Society, a woman who saw past the labels that separated them from the Germans, boldly fought for what she believed in, and helped those who needed it even at risk to herself;
Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson), who makes and sells her own gin and opens her home to Juliet, romantic at heart and content to wait for her love to come;
Eben Ramsey, postmaster and inventor of the potato peel pie, who lost his grandson during the years of the occupation and only recently had him returned;
And Mrs. Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton), who, out of all of them, has lost the most, and who is understandably taciturn about the Society and the events of the war.
While loss lays thickly over Guernsey and its inhabitants, this story is one of hope, love, and friendship. The terrible things we’ve gone through don’t set us apart but rather bring us together, and when an escape from the dark world is necessary, books will be there to light the way into a new one.
There is an idea voiced by Juliet at the beginning of the movie: “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instincts in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” The movie espouses this idea, but as it relates to people: that the people who need to find each other will do so, and they will do so at the right time, whether that’s through an illegal pig roast or an old name and address scribbled on the inside of a book.
As Juliet writes to the Society, after she has left them to return to London, “Do you suppose it’s possible for us to already belong to someone before we’ve met them? If so, I belong to you, or you to me. Or me simply to the spirit I found among you on Guernsey. That is as good a definition of family as any I know.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society can be viewed on Netflix worldwide.