Book Review: “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

933c9330dca04517bbcd5010.LTitle: 84, Charing Cross Road
Author: Helene Hanff
Genre: Memoir
Series: No, but The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a follow-up chronicling Hanff’s visit to England years later.
Rating: 5 out of 5

For my initial exposure to this story, I have a very dear friend to credit. In passing, she mentioned the movie, and upon discovering my ignorance, we, fairly galloping over to the nearest library that listed the DVD as available, absconded with a copy and promptly watched the film together.

Watching Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft portray the figures of Frank Doel, bookseller, and Helene Hanff, writer, was like meeting a pair of kindred souls. Never have I so rapidly become enamored of a story that so eloquently captured something of myself I’ve always known, but haven’t always been able to articulate. C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone,” and just occasionally, we stumble across a book that makes us thrust our fists into the air and holler, YES! This was one such book.

The back of my slim Penguin paperback summarizes the book succinctly, and for those not familiar with the work, I will include it here:

This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captures so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

Now, I object to the inclusion of the term “sentimental,” for this book is nothing of the sort. It is hilarious, it is witty, and it is touching, but it is also real. Nothing of the disgustingly common sentimental kind is lingering on these pages. There is no cheap play of human emotion or farce here. The parts that could be equated to “touching” or “heart-warming” are born out of genuine human kindness, not something you’d see sniveling across the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Hanff displays an uncommon knowledge of English literature (the REAL stuff, the GOOD stuff), and makes many literary and cultural references that are a pleasure to catch, if one can, or a delight to discover, if they are unfamiliar. She sends shipments of food to the post-WWII English bookshop to help augment their meagre rations, listens to Corelli, and types out sentences such as:

I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to, “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.

Hands down, my favourite letter is dated October 15, 1951 (reproduced here in all Hanff’s exclamatory, punctuationally-defiant glory), after having been mistakenly sent an abridged copy of Samuel Pepys:

WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?

this is not a pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot.

i could just spit.

where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?

where is sir w. pen’s son that was giving everybody so much trouble with his Quaker notions? ONE mention does he get in this whole pseudo-book, and me from philadelphia.

i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.

Having worked in a used bookstore, I also identified with Frank Doel. There’s a special sort of joy born out of discovering a book that you know a favourite customer will love. Saving titles for frequent shoppers was something I did regularly, and I loved every minute of it.

Helene Hanff is also something like myself, although perhaps a bit more caustic, brusque, and a good deal more brilliant (although I haven’t yet learned to swig martinis with a cigarette in my hand). But reading her letters makes me want to write more of them myself, and these letters serve as a reminder to hold those friends separated by geography a little bit closer.

I received it as a gift, and if I ever give it as one (which I surely shall), you can be sure I’ll include a set of stationery, a pen, and postage, for the urge to write a letter was never greater than when I came to the final page. Although 84, Charing Cross Road is short, clocking in at only 97 pages, it is 97 pages of pure, unbridled, epistolary delight. ♦