One Minute Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (Non-fiction) c. 1970
Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City and searching for rare classics, strikes up a correspondence with a used book dealer in London during the 1950’s. What results is an utterly charming and hilarious correspondence, lasting over two decades and spanning two countries. Even though Helene and bookseller Frank Doel never meet in person, their exchanges create an enduring friendship based on their mutual love of books — one that soon blossoms out to other members of the bookshop and their extended families.
Hanff is a what I would call a real “fire cracker”; she’s a colorful character — brash, kind and teasing — and it all comes out in her letters to the more staid, unfailingly polite Englishman, Doel. Their banter is fun and warm-hearted, making the reader wish to be part of their delightful round robin.
Peeping through the upbeat correspondence, we get a glimpse of how London in the 1950’s was struggling to regain its footing after the horrendous bombings of WWII. I was surprised to learn that many years after the end of the war, Londoners still had strict rations for food and other items. I wonder if the family-like atmosphere at the Marks & Co. book dealership was in part due to the collective ‘stick-togetherness’ of war’s aftermath?
If you need a little kindness in your life, or revere the lost art of letter writing, or simply remember the joy of mailing/receiving a personal letter, this little gem of a book may just be what you were waiting for…
There’s even a follow-up book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, in which Helene is finally able to travel to England!