January 02, 2015


by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

This is another title that had been lurking in my TBR pile since I can't remember when and that I finally got around to over the Christmas holidays.

I know it is a book that has sold in the squillions and been highly praised – my edition contains many glowing reviews from the media and celebrities – which implies that if you don't hug it to your chest with joy after you have finished reading it, there might be something sadly wrong with you. I was also aware that the author had died and it had to be finished by her niece, so the pressure to give an honest opinion has some weight bearing down on it.

So did I hug it? At the outset I had hoped to, but the truth is I kept dozing off while reading it. Any excuse of seasonal indulgence aside, this was not a good sign.

The main reason was that I had trouble teasing apart the jolly-hockey-sticks style of letters written by the lead character, Juliet, from the others, all of which were similarly loquacious. The members of TGLAPPPS all shared whimsical stories about each other with Juliet, to the point where no one individual really stood out, even the nasty nosey-parker's letters came out of the same quirky-character stables. The secondary heroine, Elizabeth, didn't write herself, but was held in great esteem by everyone as being feisty, forthright and noble to the bitter end. Her daughter, Kit, was annoyingly adorable as only a four-year poppet can be in fiction. The three men in Juliet's life were either caddish, shyly silent, or gay.

The bottom line is that epistolary novels in general can be a problem. For a start, nobody really writes letters as they appear in these books and it takes an exceptional author to give each individual letter-writer a truly distinctive voice which unfortunately just doesn't happen here.

As far as the setting goes, it seems the author wasn't that really familiar with the Channel Islands so although the background history of the German Occupation might have been largely correct, the characters are rather too English, such as those who might appear in one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels (there's even an allusion to that character in the book), and one doesn't really get any sense of what makes Guernsey and its inhabitants unique. The whole episode towards the end featuring skulduggery over Oscar Wilde's letters is a rather odd inclusion and there are minor anachronisms in travel logistics, to Australia in particular.

Curious to see if a film was going to be made, I discovered apparently it is on the back-burner at present. Big names have been associated with the project, and Kate Winslet and Michelle Dockery have been bandied about to play Juliet, and I can envisage all the usual character actors in the supporting roles such as we have come to expect in other compulsorily long-titled British films like Four Weddings and a Funeral or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Judi Dench as Isola, Hugh Grant as Mark, Colin Firth as Dawsey, maybe Cate Blanchett in cameo as Elizabeth. When they do get around to it, I'm sure it will be a huge success and of course I'll queue to see it because I love all those stalwart actors and their ability to give class to even the most drippy scripts (e.g. Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey). In fact, given the right treatment, this could be one instance where the film might end up being superior to the book.

3 ½ stars (respect, but no hug)


Time and tide said...

I agree with your review on this one. Glad to have found your blogs and nice meeting you yesterday at Writers Victoria

Regina of Arbeia said...

Thanks T&T - great to talk to you too about the real Guernsey and your project - look forward to hearing more about it.