Giving sentiment a good name

'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" is a sentimental book.

I don't mean sentimental in its sickly sweet connotation, but the one I learned from my friend Sue, who lives down the street. Her definition comes from the way she lives her life: to be brave enough to care.

Sentiment is an underdog in this day and age, enough that those tasked with marketing "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" decided to go with a vaguely postmodern hook for the dust jacket, billing the book as a "celebration of the written word in all its guises."

Mary Ann Shaffer's posthumous debut novel, polished and shepherded to publication by her niece Annie Barrows, is written as a series of letters and telegrams, with one very important deviation in medium toward the end.

Love for reading and writing and literary history is evident throughout these pages, but this is not the main event -- just as the title pie is not made of potato peels, but uses them only as a crust.

The heroine, Juliet (very sentimental) Ashton, is a young writer who has stumbled into national prominence by writing a series of humorous pieces for Londoners during the darkest times of World War II ("Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War").

Juliet is sweet, spunky, honest and not entirely sure of herself -- according to her, her hair color is "Chestnut with Gold Glints" at moments of high self-esteem, and "mousy brown" otherwise.

She has a nose for a story, and one seems to fall in her lap from Guernsey, a British outpost in the English Channel just off the coast of France.

It seems that another spunky, honest and sentimental young woman, Elizabeth McKenna, invented the literary society as an excuse for her and two men being out after curfew during the Nazi occupation of the island. They had really been at a feast involving an illegal roast pig, and they could have been sent to concentration camps if they'd been found out. The Germans liked and encouraged book clubs, and so Elizabeth's ruse worked.

That's the story as it comes to Juliet in London, shortly after the end of the war. When she gets an assignment to write a long essay about the importance of books and reading, she pursues the Guernsey society's history, and so begins a long journey into the heart of a community.

Most striking about Juliet's odyssey is the progressive revelation not only of the intimate details of the lives of the society's members, but also of accurate and horrific accounts of what happened on Guernsey and in concentration camps during the war.

The authors blend -- believably -- the quaint, the cozy and the quirky with the tragic, disgusting and dark.

Indicative of this unlikely blend is the account of Sally Ann Frobisher, who contracts, during the war, scabies, an ugly condition caused by lack of hygiene, where the scalp is covered with boils that must be lanced and disinfected after the head has been shaved. The aforementioned Elizabeth acts as the nurse.

"I said, 'This isn't going to hurt, is it?' I tried not to cry.

"Miss McKenna said, 'It's going to hurt like hell. Don't tell your mother I said "hell." '

"I started to giggle at that, and she made the first slice before I had time to be afraid. It did hurt, but not like hell. We played a game while she cut the rest of the tops off -- we shouted out the names of every woman who had ever suffered under the blade. 'Mary, Queen of Scots -- Snip-snap!' 'Anne Boleyn -- Whap!' 'Marie Antoinette -- Thunk!' And we were done."

Frobisher is a "one-off" character -- she writes one (unforgettable) letter to Juliet and is never heard from again. Other members of the society vault off the page and sit with you in a circle as you read: Elizabeth's 4-year old daughter Kit; the German doctor Christian Hellman; Miss Adelaide Addison, scandalized church lady; Dawsey Adams, a shy pig farmer who has discovered the beloved British writer Charles Lamb; and ... well, too many others.

There is also a less believable love interest of Julia's by the name of Markham V. Reynolds Jr., an "all charm and oil" American publishing magnate. Reynolds seems to be the only character -- hero or villain -- for whom the authors couldn't find some crumb of compassion.

But compassion -- and sentiment -- form the heart of this novel, along with its evident love of books and creativity of all kinds.

My friend Sue just got married this summer, and I'm thinking "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" would make a great wedding gift for her and her groom to read together. It is, like Sue herself, a living example of what's best about human beings.