84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

84charingWhat an odd, quirky little book this is! I’m amazed I went this long without reading it, because I’ve often heard people talk about it and it seems to be a favourite of many.  However, I apparently wasn’t paying close attention when they talked about it, becaus I was more than 2/3 of the way through this very short volume when I realized that the name of one of the “characters” writing letters in what I had taken to be an epistolary novel, was in fact the author’s name. Subsequent reading and research clarified for me that 84, Charing Cross Road is not, in fact, a novel, but is a real collection of letters between New York writer Helene Hanff, and the staff of a real bookstore at that address in London.

The letters begin in the late 1940s, when Hanff writes to a London bookstore for copies of rare books she can’t find locally.  When bookseller Frank Doel begins finding treasures for her and shipping them across the Atlantic, she expresses her gratitude with gifts of food that are hard to find in London, still affected by postwar rationing.  A genuine friendship by letter springs up between Haff, Doel and the other bookstore staff.  Again and again over the next 20 years Hanff expresses her intention to come to London and meet the employees of her beloved bookstore, but she waits too long: Frank Doel dies in 1969 and the two transatlantic friends never get to meet.

It’s a simple, even slight story, made lively and vivid by the widely differing personalities of the two main characters (Helene and Frank are as stereotypically American and English as it’s possible to be) and the obvious love for books that radiates from every page.  I know a film was made of the book though it’s very hard to imagine what it could contain: the book has almost nothing you could call “plot,” though it does have a great deal of character and charm.  I’ll have to see the film sometime, but I imagine it’ll be one of those film travesties where they have to insert a whole lot of plot that’s not actually in the letters, in order to make a movie out of it (I’d be happy to be proven wrong, if anyone here turns out to have seen the movie and loved it).

One whimsical thought that occurred to me while reading this rather whimsical book: is a relationship like that of Helene Hanff and Frank Doel (and the rest of the staff at 84 Charing Cross Road) an impossibility in the internet age? After all, a modern-day Helene could pretty much order any book she wanted off Amazon or abebooks or some other online purveyor of rare books, without entering into any personal correspondence with the booksellers.  That’s a loss.  On the other hand, email and the internet offer so many opportunities for quirky friendships-by-correspondence to spring up between people who never meet in real life, that there are probably a lot more stories like this happening every day.  One could only wish the correspondents might be as literate and as entertaining as Helene Hanff, Frank Doel, and company.

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10 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

10 responses to “84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

  1. In one of those weird coincidences, I just heard of this book last week and bought it the day before yesterday. I was reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and someone mentioned I might like this one too.

    Haven’t read it yet though!

  2. Having now read your review, I have two more comments.
    1) You should read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I can totally see why my friend recommended this one.
    2) N0, their relationship would not be an impossibility in this internet age because when she went to his website to find the book, she’d see the link to his blog. And when she commented, he’d see the link to her book blog, and … voila!

  3. Kind of like you and me, Katrina…except I didn’t wait till after you died to come to Seattle, fortunately!!!

  4. I LOVE this book!! It’s what initially inspired my book-centred blog, actually. And I’ve seen, and love, the film as well. The film does extrapolate, but does so carefully and without veering away from what is known about Hanff and Doel (plus it’s just so well acted).

  5. I loved this book, too. I read it quite awhile ago, but now want to reread it. I also saw the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it complemented the book quite nicely.

  6. Jacquie

    You have just read one of my favourite books of all time! I first read it about 9 years ago and have re-read it many times since. You must see the movie with Anthony Hopkins playing Frank and Anne Bancroft as Helena. The movie is also one of my all time faves!

  7. lisa waller rogers

    I remember this book and have never read it. I will order it today. There’s just nothing better than memoirs, letters, and diaries.
    Have you read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls?

    Best,
    Lisa Waller Rogers
    Lisa’s History Room
    http://lisawallerrogers.wordpress.com

  8. interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go

  9. Debbi

    I remember reading this a loooong time ago (maybe it was college?) – I have a fairly eclectic reading list. I’d completely forgotten about this gem, and now I’ll have to check the library to see if they have a copy so that I can rediscover it. Thanks!

  10. Rachel

    The film was great, but the book is more realistic. The Wikipedia bio confirmed what I thought, Helene is too shy to meet Frank Doel and that’s why she didn’t make the trip to England until after his death.
    The Guernsy Potato Peel book is good but a bit trite and pat. However, the most important thing I took away from both books is how difficult life was during and after the war England.

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