Article published on March 20, 2015.
You probably already know this but, as I haven’t read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it came as news to me. Know what? That Guernsey (how else am I going to refer to this book? GLPPPS?) was co-authored. Actually, it’s slightly more complicated than that. In her late 60s, Mary Ann Shaffer had finally written the book she had been promising to herself for so long. Not only that, she had managed to get it accepted for publication.
This was in 2006 a time when her health started to deteriorate, meaning she was unable to complete changes to the manuscript that required substantial re-writing. Shaffer asked her niece, Annie Barrows, an established children’s author, to finish the edits and rewrites of the novel, thereby becoming her co-author.
The story takes a turn for the worse because Shaffer died just a few months before Guernsey was published in early 2008, never knowing how successful her debut was to become. Having now sold over 6 million copies around the world, Guernsey continues to sell substantially, seven years after publication.
So that’s the back story, what about this new book? It must have been something of a shock to Ms Barrows not only to be expected to produce her own first adult novel but also to continue the success of her aunt’s original work, albeit with substantial contributions from herself.
I remember Guernsey from its early days when it seemed suddenly to acquire momentum, and not just because of the undeniable quirkiness of its title. As yet, neither group I belong to has got round to adding it to our forward programme but I’m sure one day we will. And when that happens I’ll be suggesting we try The Truth According to Us at the same time. A kind of compare and contrast, if you will. This book may not have the combination of elements that made Guernsey so distinctive: the Second World War, German invasion of the island, the importance of books and reading. However, I think it can hold its head up in the same company.
Small town America in 1938 is the setting. Specifically a – fictional – town called Macedonia in West Virginia that is set to celebrate its sesquicentennial (and I have to admit I had to look up how many years that represents – 150, since you ask). Miss Layla Beck is a slightly hoity toity young woman who has been disinherited by her Senator father. Ms Barrows has adopted the epistolary approach to her story that worked so well in Guernsey, and through various correspondence we gradually understand how Layla comes to be relocated in Macedonia in order to write the town’s history. (Needs must when her father’s choice of husband for her doesn’t accord with hers.)
Lodging with the Romeyns, a family that will be a casting director’s nightmare when this becomes a film, we quickly begin to know and love Jottie, Willa and Felix with a cast of interesting side characters, including the ghost of Vause Hamilton. There is, of course, a secret and Layla has to play her part in unravelling the story. 12-year-old Willa is, nominally, our narrator, a girl on the edge of adult understanding who wants to know more but finds it difficult to interpret grown ups’ actions and words. Her father, Felix, is catnip to women and, with the convenient absence of Willa’s mother, he is able to pursue his own ‘agenda’. However the secret will out – although you will be glued to the nearly 500 pages before it all clicks into place.
The Truth According to Us is going to be a slightly difficult proposition for the publisher, given the success of Guernsey. What it most definitely isn’t is Guernsey 2 but that’s no bad thing. Personally, I’m hoping this is no cause for concern as the Romeyns’ story is entirely of Annie Barrows’ own making and she has acquitted herself more than well. The new book has many resonances of other small town America stories that I’ve read, To Kill a Mocking Bird being one that immediately springs to mind. Obviously, Ms Barrows has her work cut out to top the success of that book but if you are willing to suspend disbelief and give Felix, Jottie and Willa, not forgetting Layla, a chance to engage with you, you will not be disappointed. I loved it.
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows is published in hardback by Doubleday on June 25th, 2015
Guy Pringle, March 2015
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