The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Novel Beat Sheet
Written by: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publisher: Random House, Inc., 2008 — my edition: 2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback
Total pages: 274
STC! Genre: Buddy Love
Make no mistake, while this #1 New York Times bestselling novel was certainly branded as upmarket historical fiction, at its essence this is a book for booklovers. Told in epistolary form, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows is a collective love letter to the transformative power of books and to the avid readers who fall under their spell.
From the back cover: “January 1946: Writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And so begins a remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation, and a society as extraordinary as its name.”
A friend gave me a paperback copy of this novel the year after its release, and for longer than I’m willing to admit, I put off reading it. It had been getting so much buzz. Too much, in my opinion. Yet another heavily WWII-ish book, I thought. Haven’t they published enough of those? Even if the premise sounded intriguing, I figured it would probably be more depressing than uplifting.
And all those glowing reviews? My cynical self doubted I’d be nearly as charmed. So, let me be the first to admit I was wrong. When I finally cracked open the novel, I fell so deeply in love with the characters and the storyline that I mimicked the behavior of the Newsday reviewer who professed, “I could not put the book down. I have recommended it to all my friends.”
If you’re a booklover and haven’t yet read this story, please consider giving it a try. And for all who enjoy Blake Snyder’s beat sheet breakdowns, here are the beats as I see them for this masterfully written novel:
Opening Image (pages 1 – 4): Comedic writer and Englishwoman Juliet Ashton sends a letter to her editor/publisher Sidney Stark, telling him that she’s no longer motivated to write her current manuscript or continue penning humorous stories under her pseudonym. She was glad to make readers laugh during the war years, but now she wants to write something more substantial and to be taken seriously.
Set-Up (pages 4 – 23): We’re introduced to Sidney by his amusing yet genuinely affectionate responses to Juliet. We also meet via letter Juliet’s best friend Sophie—who’s also Sidney’s sister, obnoxious gossip journalist Gilly Gilbert (“a twisted weasel,” according to Sidney), Juliet’s wealthy suitor Markham Reynolds, and Dawsey Adams, a man who writes to Juliet from the island of Guernsey regarding a book by Charles Lamb that once belonged to her. Dawsey discovers Juliet’s former address in the book and wishes to obtain more copies of Lamb’s work. Thus, an offbeat but earnest correspondence begins between the two of them, piquing Juliet’s interest in the island and, through Dawsey, introducing her to Elizabeth McKenna and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Theme Stated (page 23): There are multiple themes in the novel revolving around loyalty to others while still remaining true to oneself, war/humanity, honesty/integrity, and connection to other people via literature. However, the concept of what makes a family—biology versus choice—runs deep throughout the story. Sidney demonstrates this early, and Juliet comes to fully embrace it as the novel progresses.
In his latest letter, Sidney has just fired his secretary for lack of confidentiality regarding Juliet’s home address and book tour itinerary, which leads to Markham knowing where she lives. Sidney also defended Juliet’s actions against Gilly (she threw a teapot at him) because of the deceitful journalist’s behavior.
Sidney Stark is protective and treats Juliet as a valued sibling, not merely as a writer at his publishing house. He writes, “My dear, I can’t promise you plenty or prosperity or even butter, but you do know that you’re Stephens & Stark’s—especially Stark’s—most beloved author, don’t you?” She’s more than a professional colleague to him; she’s like family.
Catalyst (pages 21 – 23): Honoring Juliet’s desire to write something more weighty than her prior books and to finally publish something under her own name, Sidney has news for her: the Times would like to hire her to write a long and serious article for their literary supplement.
Debate (pages 23 – 47): This writing opportunity leads Juliet to seek a perfect subject for her article. After learning from the Times that they would like the series to be about the “practical, moral, and philosophical value of reading,” and that Juliet’s contribution would focus on the philosophical part, she sends a letter to Dawsey asking if it would be acceptable to the members of his Literary Society to include information about them in her piece. Dawsey is immediately delighted by the prospect and encourages her to pursue it. However, one of the members, Amelia Maugery, has reservations based on Juliet’s previous comedic books. Amelia fears the Society will be ridiculed in Juliet’s article, so she asks for character references and for Juliet to share her intentions for the piece. Juliet provides these to Amelia’s satisfaction.
Break into Two (pages 48 – 51): As soon as Amelia approves Juliet’s request, letters from various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are about to flood in. There is much enthusiasm and interest from most of the Society members in sharing their group’s enchanting history.
B Story (pages 49 – 51): Although there’s definitely a slow-burn love story that blossoms between Juliet and Dawsey (despite Markham’s persistence in trying to court her), the B Story is also about the background of the Literary Society and the mystery surrounding what happened to Elizabeth McKenna during and after the war. There’s a romantic element to that historical tale, too, as Elizabeth fell in love with one of the occupying German soldiers, Captain Christian Hellman, and their daughter Kit (now age four) was the result of their committed relationship. Christian planned to return to the island to marry Elizabeth, but he died just before Kit’s birth, and Elizabeth, who served as a nurse, was imprisoned and sent to the mainland for helping one of the local laborers. No one knows where she is now, but the Society members share in the duty of caring for Kit.
Fun and Games (pages 52 – 155): So. Many. Letters! Juliet begins receiving regular missives from the members of the Society and is completely captivated by the Guernsey residents, their quaint island, the continually fascinating tales from multiple perspectives of what happened there during the war, and the mystery of Elizabeth’s whereabouts. This is also where the open courtship between Markham and Juliet serves as a foil for the far more subtle courtship between Juliet and Dawsey. From the start of the novel through the Fun and Games beat, the latter pair is acquainted only via their letters, yet they connect on a deep level through their love of literature.
By contrast, Markham/“Mark” is a wealthy and powerful man who insists on having Juliet’s attention in person. She grows increasingly curious about Guernsey and the Society, even receiving Sidney’s permission to visit the island for research, and she makes plans to go. However, Mark insists on trying to get her to stay. He proposes marriage to her and Juliet, while conflicted, neither accepts nor turns him down directly. Instead, she says she needs time to think and continues to make arrangements for her visit to Guernsey.
Mark is not someone who takes no for an answer, and he’s displeased both by her lack of immediate commitment and by her determination to go on this trip. Juliet is an independent woman, however, who might be tempted by conventionality, but she has a will and spirit all her own. She won’t be deterred from leaving London as planned.
Midpoint (pages 157 – 164): False victory. Juliet arrives on the island of Guernsey and finally meets Dawsey and the members of the Society, most of whom welcome her warmly.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 165 – 208): Juliet gets to know the residents of the island and sees firsthand the way Guernsey was ravaged by the war. She learns further details about the history—particularly as it relates to Kit’s mother, Elizabeth McKenna; attends her first Literary Society meeting; plays frequently with Kit, since Juliet is staying in Elizabeth’s cottage during her visit; and starts to become a part of their community. She writes to Sidney and lets him know that she’s gathering material for her article and, possibly, also for a book. She asks if he can send her some paper dolls for Kit, which his new secretary (Billee Bee) does.
Unfortunately, not all is well. The Society receives a letter from a Frenchwoman named Remy, who bears bad news of Elizabeth’s fate. Remy and Elizabeth were both held at a German concentration camp, and Elizabeth was executed. Remy heard about the Society and about Kit from the spirited Elizabeth, and she wanted them all to know how much Elizabeth loved them. Everyone in the Society mourns this loss. Dawsey and Amelia go to France to meet Remy during her recovery and encourage her to come to Guernsey. Juliet volunteers to care for Kit while they’re away, and her maternal feelings toward the young girl grow even more.
Sidney comes to visit the island and witnesses many positive changes in Juliet. After reading her pages thus far, he offers editorial suggestions that would improve the manuscript. He’s keenly aware that if she were to marry a man like Mark, she wouldn’t be able to continue writing. But even from a distance, Mark persists in trying to convince Juliet to marry him, despite being spotted dancing with other women and his disinterest in everything Juliet is learning and doing on Guernsey.
All Is Lost (pages 209 – 211): Whiff of death. Just as Juliet and Dawsey are getting close enough for him to potentially reveal his feelings for her (and maybe even kiss her, which she would love), Mark shows up on the island unexpectedly and puts an immediate end to their emotionally intimate moment.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 212 – 214): Juliet breaks off her relationship with Mark once and for all, but her sadness is for Dawsey, not for Mark. She second guesses her interpretation of Dawsey’s behavior, unable to tell if he’s truly interested in her romantically or if, perhaps, his heart belongs to someone else. Juliet, however, fell for him long ago and is finally willing to admit this to her best friend.
Break into Three (pages 215 – 222): Juliet learns additional information about Elizabeth’s story that gives Juliet some needed background to work on her own book, and Remy arrives on the island, changing the social dynamics.
Finale (pages 222 – 273): The bonds between the Society and the former outsiders—Juliet, Sidney, and Remy—are strengthening. One member of the Society, Isola Pribby, with the help of a book Sidney sent her, has taken up the study of phrenology, which becomes a source of amusement among the Guernsey residents. Isola is neither an adept reader of “head bumps” nor is she particularly perceptive about the relationships and emotions of those around her. Inadvertently, though, Isola’s attempts at flexing her detective skills are the means by which Juliet eventually guesses Dawsey’s true feelings. On the way to this realization, Juliet continues to work on her manuscript, which is turning into a book-length biography of Elizabeth McKenna’s life.
Her attachment to Kit grows even stronger, leading to Juliet’s desire to formally adopt Kit. Several Society members join forces to defeat a threat in the form of Billee Bee, who they discover took the position as Sidney’s temporary secretary as a way to help her lover, Gilly Gilbert, exact his revenge on Sidney. Billee Bee and Gilly’s underhanded plot involved getting ahold of some original letters by Oscar Wilde and publishing them before Sidney could. Fortunately, the good members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society learned of their deceit just in time.
And though it was a long time coming, Juliet, who frequently flouts the accepted gender roles of the 1940s, manages to overcome her insecurities regarding Dawsey’s feelings and chooses to pursue him. With a supportive spouse who values her intellect and independence, a woman like Juliet can have both a good marriage and an excellent career. Recognizing this, Juliet proposes to Dawsey, who happily accepts.
Final Image (pages 273 – 274): In one last letter to Sidney, Juliet writes asking (more like demanding, really) that he return to Guernsey to give her away at the wedding. Juliet and Dawsey’s story is about to begin, which she says may inspire whatever book she writes next.