05 December 2012

Review: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff book cover
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a book for booklovers, bibliophiles and those nostalgic for the days of letter writing. It is a collection of letters initiated by Helene Hanff living in New York to a second hand bookshop in London called Messrs Marks and Co.

Commencing in October 1949, Helene mentions that she is a poor writer and that she cannot find the books she wants in New York, and that the ones she can find are "grimy, marked-up school boy copies." She sends her wish list and a budget, and so begins a 20 year correspondence.

Writing back and forth with Frank Doel and requesting volumes, Helene's wit comes across loud and clear and is immeasurably enjoyable for any booklover. Sending parcels during times of rationing and shortages in London, Helene become very popular with the staff at the store, and an amazing relationship builds up over the years.

When Frank passes away after a 20 year correspondence, Helene was inspired to write a book, including some of their letters; with the family's approval of course. She fulfils a long held dream to travel to London to promote the book and keeps a diary during her stay. Her diary was published as The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street - her nickname during her stay - and this edition of 84 Charing Cross Road includes The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street at the back.  

I loved reading the letters for their historical and literary worth and their wit and humour was very uplifting. Here's an example from a letter Helene sends to Frank dated February 9th 1952: 
  i could ROT over here before you'd send me anything to read. i oughta run straight down to brentano's which i would if anything i wanted was in print.
 You may add Walton's Lives to the list of books you aren't sending me. It's against my principles to buy a book I haven't read, it's like buying a dress you haven't tried on, but you can't even get Walton's Lives in a library over here. You can look at it. They have it down at the 42nd street branch. But not to take home! the lady said to me, shocked. eat it here. just sit right down in room 315 and read the whole book without a cup of coffee, a cigarette or air."  Page 45
I heartily recommend 84 Charing Cross Road to those who love books, second hand bookshops and letter writing. This book was made into a film in 1987 starring Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins and I'm looking forward to watching that next. Has anyone seen it?

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

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