84, Charing Cross Road / Helene Hanff

  • Title: 84, Charing Cross Road
  • Author: Helene Hanff
  • Published: 1970
  • Page Number: 97
  • ISBN: 0-380-00122-5

“It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.

 

 

I was recommended this book by my mother, who said it was fantastic. The book is a short one and it took me two days to finish. 84, Charing Cross Road belongs to the genre of epistolary novels, which are novels that are written as a series of documents such as letters or diary entries.

The book 84, Charing Cross Road is the documentation of the correspondence between Helene Hanff and the staff at the bookstore Marks & Co. between the years of 1949 – 1969. Hanff is a writer living in New York. She is a lover of books and so she contacts a second-hand bookshop in London, wondering if they might have books she’s looking for. The great service and quality of the books she receives by post leads her to send another letter, which leads to more and more letters that eventually leave the topic of books and become a correspondence between friends – Hanff and Frank Doel, the man who replies to her letters. Doel tells Hanff of the rations on food products in England following WW2 and she sends the shop food for the holidays which leads to other staff members secretly mailing her as well. Hanff manages to form true friendship with quite a few people from the shop and even with Doel’s wife, Nora. Along with other stories, in the letters the friends discuss the idea of having Hanff come and visit the bookshop in person.

As a child, I actually despised epistolary books. I could not understand how a bunch of letters or diary entries could form an interesting story. Eventually I discovered that I was mistaken and since then I have read quite a few epistolary novels.  84, Charing Cross Road is a wonderful book. It is definitely a new favorite of mine. Despite not knowing many of the books mentioned in Hanff’s letters, the writing itself is lovely. It was so interesting to see how a friendship was formed over the simple matter of a correspondence between a salesman and a client. Hanff’s letters are funny and I found myself laughing quite a lot. In the beginning Doel’s replies to Hanff are very official since he is writing as a representative of the bookshop, but Hanff drops the official tone almost immediately and just writes how she pleases, as if she’s known Frank for years. I feel like my review can’t possibly do this book justice, and even quoting is pointless because the sentences are part of a whole – a letter, a relationship – and don’t mean much out of context. All I can say is that through 97 pages and 20 years, Hanff manages to build a sturdy, loving relationship that spans over time and space. The core of the relationship is a mutual love of books, and behind these books we find people filled with so much more. The letters are both sad, bitter, amusing and smile inducing – sometimes even at the same time. The sadness because of the distance is tinged with the bittersweet happiness of still being able to communicate and the hope to one day meet.

Helene Hanff’s book 84, Charing Cross Road made me want to have my own similar correspondence. I wish I could thank Hanff for… for publishing her letters and for affecting me in a way I utterly fail to explain in this review. Unfortunately, Hanff died about two and a half months after I was born. I hope this book won’t be forgotten. It is small and simple, and yet so much better than many of the larger, more exciting, bestselling novels of our time.

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One response

  1. […] 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff – just read it. Or read my review which really isn’t very good but I think you’ll get the point. […]

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