One for book lovers and those who enjoy period fiction. Please take a couple of hours to enjoy this short gem! 4/5 stars.
Firstly, and most importantly, I must mention that Lindsay at Bookboodle and I read 84 Charing Cross Road as a readalong, chatting on Twitter as we went. Although short, this is a great book to share with fellow book lovers and doing a “joint” read was great fun. Thank you Lindsay for suggesting it 🙂
What it’s about: from 1949 to 1969, New Yorker Helene Hanff was in correspondence with the staff of Marks and Co, a second-hand bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road in central London. 84 Charing Cross Road is a selection of this correspondence which documents the growth of trans-Atlantic friendships and mentions many wonderful and wonderfully obscure books.
I got the 1981 edition of the book (pictured above) which contains both 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. The second book is very much a follow up to the first and they are both quick reads. I would recommend you read them together.
84 Charing Cross Road
The short collection of letters in 84 Charing Cross Road span the Atlantic and 1949 to 1969. And yet in a few words they convey so much about the characters behind the correspondence, the conditions in London and New York in the period, and the events of the day. The devil is in the detail: for example, when you realize that Frank Doel has finally started to sign off his letters with “love” rather than “yours sincerely” and only after 12 years!
Hanff comes across as someone you’d love to have in your circle of friends. She’s funny, warm, generous and holds nothing back. She also uses ALLCAPS brilliantly and makes the only use of the word “varlet” I’ve seen outside Shakespeare. However the real joy comes from the contrast between her brash, outrageous and honest writing, and Frank’s reserved, measured responses which only wink with subtle humour.
Although this is non-fiction, fans of historical fiction will enjoy the details the letters reveal. I learned there used to be such a thing as “Book Post” – a mail service which was cheaper if you were posting books, originally introduced to encourage self-education. Do you think we could bring this back?! I also discovered that after WWII rationing in the UK went on for far longer than I had thought, making the gift of fresh eggs or ham a cause for great celebration.
If I haven’t convinced you to read this yet, there are BOOKS, people. Beautiful, hard-to-find, second-hand books. Rare, exotic birds you’ve never heard of, but which Hanff makes alluring.
[BEWARE. HERE BE MONSTER SPOILERS] The ending. Ah, dear. I actually raised my hand to my heart, perhaps to stop me losing the pieces. And I cried, but then I’m a sensitive soul. I just always thought one day, even after 20 years, she’d finally stop making excuses and get over to London to meet Frank. *sigh* [HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS]
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
If you enjoy 84 Charing Cross Road, you should read this. Another short book which is Helene Hanff’s memoir of her trip to London. I love her sense of humour and observations. A couple of exemplary gems:
While describing how London ambulances are quieter than those in New York she comes up with one of the best similes I have ever read:
“The ambulance sirens go BlooOOP, blooOOP, like a walrus weeping under water.”
And I agree with this comment 100%:
“Nothing infuriates me like those friendly, folksy bank ads in magazines and on TV. Every bank I ever walked into was about as folksy as a cobra.”
Overall: I highly recommend this book for book lovers and those who like historical writing of all kinds.