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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]