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[342] 84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff

I put off reviewing this book until after my third read. What slim volume actually affords a twenty-year correspondence between the author, Helen Hanff, and Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers located at the eponymous address in London, England. Hanff, in search of obscure classics and British literature titles she had been unable to find in New York City, noticed a timely ad in the Saturday Review of Literature and first contacted the shop in 1949. Doel was the first person to fulfill her requests. In time, a long-distance friendship evolved, not only between the two, but between Hanff and other staff members as well, with an exchange of Christmas packages, birthday gifts, and food parcels to compensate for post-World War II food shortages in England. Their letters included discussions about topics as diverse as the sermons of John Donne, how to make Yorkshire Pudding, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Written in epistolary form and reads like a novel though it is non-fiction, 84 Charing Cross Road is a story of beginnings and endings as represented by each letter, from date to signature. The power of language figures prominently (which also makes the book such a joy to peruse), presenting the challenge of inference in the white space of the text as Helene waits breathlessly for her next letter to arrive. In others, Helen’s anticipation becomes the reader’s as well. Their friendship is one that writers would vie to write in fiction, but didn’t have to because it was real. Both Hanff’s and Doel’s love of the written word is practically a character itself. After all, this book is a most perfect book about books and reading really. It’s the quest for books and literary interests that have made this friendship possible.

97 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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17 Responses

  1. I picked this book up at the library today after seeing the movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins last week. If you liked the book, you’ll really like the movie. Movie script follows the letters, verbatim. Too bad the library didn’t have the sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”. I need to hunt that one down. Were you planning on reading it? PS – I am a new book blogger and really like the content on your blog.

  2. 84 Charing Cross Road has been one of my special favorite books since it was first published. My parents had a copy and I remember reading it in junior high school and just being so fascinated by the idea of searching for books by letters across an ocean. In our day of internet book searches that seems so quaint. All in all, it is a special, rather lovely book.

  3. I must get a copy of this and read it. I love the film adaptation and have been meaning to read the actual book for years.

  4. I loved this book – the letters were so short and to the point at the beginning and then they became so warm and full of interest. How this relationship developed and all over books was such a good read. I reviewed this as well.

  5. I am so in love with this book. I may buy my own copy so that I can read it again!! Loved your thoughts on this one!!

  6. I enjoyed this book too. I read it last year and I have to admit that when I read it I thought it was fictional. It wasn’t until I finished it that I discovered otherwise. I thought it was really sweet the way the friendships evolved over time. I was less excited by the follow on novel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street but it did provide a bit of closure which was nice.

  7. Sounds interesting. I always look for your final opinion: buy/borrow etc. It doesn’t matter the story, what matters is the writing… do you believe that?

  8. This is a lovely little book that I occasionally get the urge to reread. I really must buy my own copy instead of chasing it down in the library every time I want to read it.

  9. This book as one of my favorites, yet I don’t own a copy. It’s time to finally buy one and reread (again)!

  10. I fell in love with this book when I read it a year or two ago. The wonderful combination of bookishness enthusiasm, sparkling humour and genuine affection made Hanff’s letters a highlight of my reading year and ensured her a place on my ‘This Book Isn’t Going Anywhere, Ever’ shelf. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

  11. Love this book! Its one of my favorite reads! I still need to read the follow up – I want to see how Hanff enjoys London. Great post! Reminds me I need to re-read this one.

  12. It absolutely IS perfect. It charmed me to death. And made me want to cry that they never met.

  13. I read it last week! Lovely book.

  14. I have never seen the film but I’ve read the book a couple of times since I first bought it a couple of decades ago. And then, last weekend I heard the audiobook – unabridged – read by John Nettles and Juliet Stevenson. It was wonderful all over again.

  15. I said the same thing – it is more than a book of letters, but it really is a book about books and books become a central character. I love it. Thanks for this, I really enjoyed your review.

  16. […] she lived in a South Kensington rooming house and worked in publishing in 1954. (This really evokes 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff.) Besides her day job as an editor at a small press that, despite its quality […]

  17. […] Opinions: Books and Movies, Literate Housewife, eclectic/eccentric, Things Mean a Lot, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Savidge Reads, It’s All About Books, MarysLibrary, Unputdownables, Start Narrative Here, My […]

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