Summary and Analysis
Note: The novel does not have normal chapter divisions; instead, the story is told through various correspondences between the characters. Therefore, this literature note has been divided by timeframe to more easily convey the action and analysis of the story.
The novel opens in January 1946, as London recovers from World War II and much of London lies in rubble. Juliet Ashton, a 32-year-old writer, has lost her home and now resides in a borrowed flat. During the war, she wrote a humor column for The London Times under the pseudonym of Izzy Bickerstaff. Her amusing war observations were eventually compiled into a book entitled Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, published by Stephens & Stark Publishing Co.
Through Juliet's early correspondence with Sidney Stark and his sister Sophie Strachan, parts of her life story are revealed. Juliet has known the sibling pair since attending boarding school and becoming best friends with Sophie. Sidney, 10 years Sophie's senior, eventually became Juliet's publisher and close friend. After school, Juliet and Sophie moved to London and worked together in a secondhand book shop. Juliet had been engaged to Lieutenant Rob Dartry, but she left him at the altar.
In mid-January 1946, controversy arises when Juliet slaps a reporter named Gilly Gilbert while on a book tour for Izzy — he publicly chastises her for jilting her former fiancé. Juliet worries that she has forever disgraced the name of Stephens & Stark.
In the midst of this media uproar, Juliet receives a mysterious bouquet of flowers from an American publisher named Mark Reynolds. A letter from Sidney reveals Mark to be a suave womanizer known for beguiling England's authors with visions of prosperity in America. Juliet also receives word that The Times wishes for Juliet to write a long supplement to Izzy under her own name.
Also mid-month, Juliet unexpectedly receives her first letter from the island of Guernsey — an island located in the English Channel between England and France. She knows little of Guernsey except that it had come under control of the Germans during the war. Dawsey Adams, a native of the small farming community, had come across Juliet's name in a book by Charles Lamb. He writes to her in hopes of attaining more books, a rarity on the island. Through her early letters with Dawsey, Juliet learns that the islanders formed a book club during the occupation called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She garners an overview of the club's premise: One night during the occupation, islander Elizabeth McKenna concocted a tale about a literary club meeting when German officers caught a group of islanders illegally sharing a pig roast feast after curfew. The club continued to meet since. Juliet is immediately intrigued and begins corresponding with several Guernsey islanders to learn more about their experience during the war and the role of the society. She feels she may have finally found a topic for her Times supplement.
Although Juliet's early correspondence with her friends Sidney and Sophie establishes the novel's timeframe as post-World War II Europe, the novel does not fall under the category of historical fiction. The novel's back drop of war merely allows for greater themes to unfold — most notably, the triumph of the human spirit and survival in times of great strife. World War II acts only as the milieu by which the strengths of the characters shine.
The novel's epistolary form personalizes the characters, allowing for multiple perspectives to unfold and highlighting significant character tones and quirks. The epistolary form is also convenient for longer stories about the past, enabling the characters to tell those stories in their own words. Characters' stories dating back to 1940 are just as commanding as the present events of post-World War II life in 1946. Juliet's character is almost instantly appealing through the sardonic tone in her early communication with her publisher and other friends. As further correspondences unfold, the most honest versions of the characters are revealed.
Prior to Juliet's correspondence with the Guernsey islanders, she finds herself quite discontent with London life. Surprisingly enough, her unhappiness surfaces through discussion with Sidney about the commercial success of Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War — she even mentions that she is gloomier than she had been during the war. Although her dedicated readers appreciate her column for its humor and wit in a horrific time, she longs to write something more serious and under her own name. Juliet's desire for others to take her seriously will be an underlying theme for much of the novel, although her humor and unceasing optimism ultimately prove to be her greatest strengths. Juliet's frequent mention of how she wishes her first book, an autobiography of the frequently overlooked Anne Brontë, highlights how seriously she takes literature and writing. Her success as a writer certainly did not blossom overnight, and she does not wish to make her mark in the world with humor alone.
Although unaware of her true emotions at this point, Juliet is torn between the glamour and superficiality of being a writer in London and the excitement of an unknown new adventure. This internal struggle is especially highlighted with the introduction of American publisher Mark Reynolds. Suave, debonair, and utterly flattering, Mark represents the greater social status and recognition that Juliet could choose to attain in London. She is certainly intrigued by Mark's advances, but slow to trust.
The development of Juliet's love life is an important object of speculation throughout the novel. Early on, Juliet and her publisher Sidney are clearly close friends, but the author seemingly leaves open the possibility of romantic involvement between them. Furthermore, Juliet and Sidney speak of her failed engagement to Lieutenant Rob Dartry. Rob had loaded up Juliet's beloved books to be packed away in a basement — a seemingly harmless gesture — but enough of an offense for her to abandon the engagement. Juliet's refusal to commit to a man who cannot accept her truest self highlights her unbending independence. She is thoroughly averted to putting a relationship before her happiness, a quality that certainly holds her back in reciprocating the advances of Mark Reynolds throughout the novel.
January's most notable correspondence is Juliet's unexpected letter from Guernsey islander Dawsey Adams. Beyond requesting more reading material, it introduces the development of a literary society during World War II. Such a society and the literature that its members came to love provided an escape from the horrors of German occupation. His brief explanation essentially introduces the novel's most central theme: the strength of human nature in trying times. The Guernsey islanders demonstrate the survival and humanity than can be maintained in the worst of circumstances. The letter acts as a turning point for Juliet: an invitation to a new interest away from the bleak normalcy of London life.