Book Reviews: Stiff Upper Lip and All That


Henrietta’s War
Joyce Dennis

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I didn’t consciously plan to read these two books in quick succession, yet both of them are epistolary novels about coping with the trials and tribulations of World War II in the United Kingdom. In Henrietta’s War, the action takes place in 1941 in a small Devonshire village and is told through a series of letters from Henrietta to her childhood friend Robert who is serving in the British army. In the case of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the action takes place in 1946 and is described in a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, a journalist living in London, her friends and colleagues, and a group of folks who lived through the Nazi-occupation of Guernsey, a British territory in the Channel Islands just off the coast of France.

Henrietta’s War has been much reviewed in the blogosphere by a generally adoring fan base. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t necessarily sweep me off my feet. Perhaps I had read too much hype before I finally got to read it. In any case I won’t spend much time talking about it so you might want to check out reviews by Stuck-in-a-Book, Cornflower, Paperback Reader, Read Warbler, and Frisbee, to name just a few of the great reviews of the book.

TGLPPS has also been reviewed by a great number of folks like Savidge Reads, Letters from a Hill Farm, and Bibliophile by the Sea. But I found this book so delightful that I feel the need to wax rhapsodic about it. I love the book for several reasons. First, the characters come together over their love of literature and they “meet” through their letters. Shaffer and Barrows essentially create a scenario that is not unlike the communities of folks who blog about books and get to know each other by trading literary likes and dislikes on the Internet. The only real difference is that in 1946 the medium was ink, paper, stamps, and the Royal Mail. Which, frankly is another reason I love this book so much, I absolutely love letters. Back in high school I had about 30 pen-pals and I miss the day when people would put pen (or even typewriter) to paper.

The subject matter is also fascinating. I have an undergraduate degree in history, but I am not much of a fan of historical fiction. I am not sure if TGLPPPS would fall into the category of historical fiction, probably not, but it does a great job of describing what life was like in Nazi-occupied Guernsey. In 2005 Masterpiece Theater showed a fantastic British drama called Island at War, a fictional account of life in the occupied Channel Islands. The storylines are completely different, but the historical detail in Island at War and TGLPPPS complement each other rather well. And both of them make me want to visit the Channel Islands.

Another reason to love TGLPPPS is that it is a joy to read. I loved the characters, I loved the plot lines, and I loved the humor. And Shaffer and Barrows are quite deft at weaving the reality of Nazi atrocities into the story without minimizing them or being pedantic.

Occasionally, but not often, the language seems a tad too modern for the 1946 correspondence. But it is just a little whiff here and there, overall it seems very appropriate to the era. I was, however, quite disappointed with the introduction of what I think is a rather pointless reference to one of the character’s homosexuality. The information doesn’t really add anything to the story, unless the authors were just trying to prove that homosexuals existed during World War II. But what was truly jarring to me was the very unrealistic way in which the characters talk about the subject. The dialogue doesn’t ring true for one second. In fact it was so stylistically and historically incongruous it was like having a Sousaphone player toot his way across stage through the middle of a Mozart string quartet.

Having said that, the book is wonderful and everyone should read it.

My only other quibble with both Henrietta’s War and TGLPPPS is one that I have with most epistolary novels. When people write letters they almost never include actual dialogue. In a letter (or email) one may write something like “Then he told me to shut-up and I told him to go to hell.” But it is unlikely that someone would write you a letter like this: “Shut-up!” he yelled. “Oh yeah, well you can go to hell!” I replied shaking my fist. And so on. Most people just don’t write that way. One of my all time favorite authors, Carol Shields wrote an epistolary novel with Blanche Howard called A Celibate Season that was so full of quoted dialogue that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. On the other hand 84, Charing Cross Road which is a series of actual letters written by author Helene Hanff that tell a wonderful story and is entirely free of quoted dialogue. In my opinion that is the way it should be. Otherwise epistolary novels are just lazy ways to describe settings or advance plots without needing to be clever enough to connect it all together. A bit of an overgeneralization, I know, but for OCD types like me, it just seems wrong.

10 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Stiff Upper Lip and All That

  1. Paperback Reader September 17, 2009 / 11:14 am

    I must read TGLPPPS; I've been meaning to for some time. I'm glad that also waxed rhapsodic about it too because in my opinion there can never be enough gushing from every quarter about a fabulous book.

    Thank you for linking to my review. I believe I quoted dialogue in my epistolary post – oops!

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  2. Book Psmith September 17, 2009 / 11:23 am

    I have been calling it the potato pie book…I mean what a title. I am almost afraid to write a review when I finally get around to reading it. I have heard so many good things about this one but you are making me a little nervous about Henrietta's War:) Good point about dialogue in letters…although I would love a chance to write something like 'well, you can go to hell' in a letter…dialogue or not.

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  3. Dreamybee September 17, 2009 / 7:11 pm

    I know what you mean about suspending your disbelief with questionably written letters. I just read Ella Minnow Pea and I felt sort of the same way. There was just too much story that needed to be told for it to all come out in letters.

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  4. Thomas September 17, 2009 / 7:27 pm

    Paperback: You are right about never too much gushing about fabulous books.

    Psmith: For a real bookie like yourself, I don't think too much hype will dampen your enthusiasm for the potato pie book. It really is delightful.

    Dreamybee: Thanks for stopping by. I haven't heard of Ella Minnow Pea. But now that I type it I realize it sounds like L, M, N, O, P. That is kind of clever.

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  5. Jenners September 18, 2009 / 11:27 am

    So many things to say!

    First, I do regret that so many have stopped sending real letters. There is just something about getting a handwritten letter that is so magical and amazing. The only person who still writes me letters is my grandmother. But one think I'm thinking of doing is trying to write at least one letter a week to a different person in my life. I think it would be such a treat for them and for me.

    Second, I've heard ad nauseum about the Potato Peel book (I don't feel like figuring out the acronym) and not one person has had a negative thing to say about it so I suppose I shall read it as well. I'm always one to jump on a bandwagon — if only to see what I think about it.

    And you have a great point about dialogue in letters … I never thought of it really but I can't say I've read too many epistolary novels either.

    Wonderful review and I suspect I shall be back to visit again!

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  6. Bloomsbury Bell September 18, 2009 / 11:35 am

    I really loved this book and wrote a rather gushing review but you are right about some of the language being a tad too modern; luckily the page turning nature sweeps the reader through this to some extent. Like, you I now want to visit the Channel Islands!

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  7. Thomas September 19, 2009 / 12:14 pm

    Jenners: I tend to send plenty of postcards when I travel and have recently started sending letters again. They are somewhat few and far between. The biggest issue I have is that I can't think of many people who would appreciate getting a letter. I hate the thought of them going into a black hole. I find that people often don't even acknowledge the letters verbally or by email let alone by replying in kind. I think some folks might actually be embarassed, and not because they know they won't get around to returning the gesture. No, I think they are embarassed for me. As in, how crazy/silly/lonely is he? Then again there are a few folks who I know appreciate them.

    Bloomsbury Bell: I know there are whole tourist industries around visiting the stomping grounds of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables. Maybe Guernsey will be the next to cater to the likes of rabid fans.

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  8. litlove September 19, 2009 / 4:44 pm

    What great reviews! I have yet to read either of these, although I do have the Potato Pie book (I like Psmith's style here) on my shelves. I hold back from epistolary novels generally, having trouble suspending disbelief to the extent of considering that any story could be fully realised in letters. But that being said, I do love Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos, and 84 Charing Cross Road was sheer delight. So it does work, and really well, on some occasions.

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  9. Booklogged September 19, 2009 / 5:52 pm

    I don't have anything rhapsodic to say. I love that word and wanted to use it.

    I too loved this Guernsey and want to visit there. Your review was quite eloquent and beautifully written. I am envious of your talent with thinking and expressing things so well.

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