Two highly popular novels are under review here, written by women and featuring heroines who overcome a great deal of male chauvinism to come into their own agency. They serve as evidence that popular best-selling fiction often serves to advance ideas that are bubbling up into wide acceptance. The theme of female agency has been around in one form or another since the fertility goddesses of prehistoric times, and in many different cultures, but the relentless pressure to press women back into a male supremacist vision of how things should be in the world demands that the topic be revived and reinterpreted all the time. (I am writing on the first day since the release of the Supreme Court draft decision to reverse Roe v. Wade.)
The two books briefly discussed here are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by the aunt and niece team of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict.
Marie Benedict is the pen name of a high-power lawyer, Heather Benedict Terrell, now turned full-time fiction writer. She focuses her attention on women who have been overlooked throughout history whose accomplishments deserve to become better known. Sometimes these women are wives or otherwise involved in the lives of famous men (Churchill, Einstein, Carnegie), while others have made their mark entirely on their own. Aside from the Christie thriller, published in 2020, her other titles include The Other Einstein, Carnegie’s Maid, The Only Woman in the Room, Lady Clementine, Agent 355, The Personal Librarian, Smoke Signal, and the latest, Her Hidden Genius, about the brilliant scientist Rosalind Franklin, co-discoverer, though long uncredited, of DNA. Using her own name, Heather Terrell, she has also published The Chrysalis, The Map Thief, Brigid of Kildare, Fallen Angel, and Eternity.
Readers of Agatha Christie, reputedly the best-selling author of all time, will be intrigued by Benedict’s mystery centering the popular writer as her central character. Many followers of Christie are aware of an episode that took place in 1926, just as her first books were establishing her fame, when for a period of 11 days she disappeared without explanation. No one has ever successfully uncovered exactly what happened during those 11 days, and in her own autobiography, though the incident had been a newspaper headline-grabber for weeks, Agatha Christie glides over the episode unmentioned. Benedict’s aim here is to hypothesize how it might have unfolded, using the whodunit genre itself to explore the background and motivations to this singular event.
Most of the drama has to do with Christie’s strained marital relationship. How Benedict constructs her story is itself a clever piece of literary clockwork. She starts with the first chapter of what she calls “The Manuscript,” beginning in 1912, when she meets Lieut. Archie Christie, a daring airman who will in time become her husband, even though she had been promised to another. In more or less alternating chapters this autobiographical Manuscript will get updated with later entries leading right up to the disappearance. And in the chapters in between, we see how her husband, daughter, other family members, house servants, the police, the press, cope with the writer’s disappearance over the 11-day ordeal. By the end, the two timelines—of the Manuscript and the hour-by-hour hunt for the missing author—come together in a masterful turn of plotting genius that some readers will no doubt come away accepting as what actually happened, though truly nobody knows. It’s as plausible as any other conceivable account, but more to the point, true to Christie’s talent for creating unsolvable conundrums, this one in her own life.
It’s a gripping suspense story about the author whose most famous character was the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, paying tribute not only to Christie herself as a woman, author and character, but to the very genre in which Christie made her mark. And in the process of uncovering the mystery we come to understand how Agatha Christie might have overcome the shackles of what eventually became a loveless marriage and grew into her own woman.
This is historical fiction at its best, revealing the mores and standards of England in the years just before and after World War I, with slowly changing domestic and professional roles for women and men, masters and servants, rich and poor. There is much here also, being a period piece, about England’s position at the time as the world’s largest imperial power with tentacles stretching out to almost every part of the world. It’s a poignant personal story, and a fun read as we try to be our own detectives and suss out Christie’s method and motivation. As Booklist writes, “Girl power advocates will find satisfaction in the solution she crafts to her man problem.”
An hour-long interview with Marie Benedict about her book can be viewed here.
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Guernsey during the German Occupation and postwar
We turn now to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a favorite item in community book clubs since its first publication in 2008. Guernsey, only 25 sq. mis., is one of the Channel Islands, part of the United Kingdom though with their own autonomous status, issuing their own postage stamps, for example. These islands are located in the English Channel and actually closer to France, off the Normandy coast. On a clear day the French coastline and its lights can be seen from the islands. These specks of land (Jersey, somewhat larger, being the other main island) were occupied by the Germans during World War II as a potential springboard for an eventual invasion of the UK, and were as cut off from communications with London as any of the other occupied nations on the continent. Few Britishers had any clue as to what fate the Channel Islanders were experiencing.
The protagonist of the novel—an epistolary work (comprised entirely of letters)—is Juliet Ashton, a wartime journalist in England writing about the effects of war on ordinary citizens. At the end of the war her attention as a writer turns to what the inhabitants of the Channel Islands went through under occupation. Much of the authors’ focus is on the art and business of writing itself, the letters reflecting Juliet’s relationships with her publisher Sidney and her best friend, the publisher’s sister Sophie.
Another character in London is the American publishing magnate Markham V. Reynolds, Jr., smashingly well dressed, courtly and handsome, any young woman’s fantasy of a real catch, who assiduously, demandingly courts the witty, urbane Juliet. Most of the rest of the characters are the Guernsey islanders themselves, with all their background and history, interrelationships, feuds, and the occasional ones who perforce had dealings at various levels with the occupying Germans. There is a little girl, Kit, an important character who is the offspring of one of those liaisons, and one incidentally gay male character.
The “potato peel pie” of the title refers to the near-starvation on the island during the war as pantries ran dry, supply lines were cut off, and the people came up with a variety of make-do solutions to stay alive.
In the process of getting to know the island and its people, Juliet is able to overcome some of her uncertainties about career choices, understand the nuances of human experience when placed under severe test, and to distinguish infatuation from a deeper affection and love. Some heroic stories are unearthed about how the islanders conducted themselves under the occupation and resistance. Juliet also manages to unearth a collection of safely guarded letters (of course, being an epistolary novel) from a distinguished writer who had spent some time on Guernsey many decades before, the renown from which brings an economic boon and lifetime security for some of the main characters. And speaking of boon, I can presume with some confidence that tourism to Guernsey has certainly shot up considerably since publication of this book.
This is a sweet, happy-ending story probably more appealing to women readers (as likely is true of the Christie novel). I thoroughly enjoyed it. My only reservation is that everyone is always trying to be so smart and clever in a Shavian or Wildean flow of epigrams and precious bon mots. I would have asked the authors to give each character a more distinct voice to indicate education, class and social distinction, age, and command of spelling and grammar.
That aside, readers will gain an education about the islands and their history, as well as relish a fine tale with considerable romance and more than one strong woman emerging out of it.
Eric A. Gordon