Thursday, August 30, 2018
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff Paperback (Sphere)
It is a rare instance when non-fiction reads like fiction, and Helene Hanff’s book is exactly one of those exceptions. Long before the age of the Internet and on-line book sellers like Amazon, New York writer Hanff saw an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature for a second-hand book shop called Marks & Co, which was located on 84 Charing Cross Road, in London, England. As she was in need of some items that were out of print or unavailable in the USA, on October 5, 1949 she decided to write to them. This began a more than 20 year-long international relationship between Hanff and the store’s employees, and in particular, one Frank Doel.
Their story is accounted here through the correspondence between them, using the actual letters that they sent each other. While this may sound boring, Hanff’s offhanded humor and impulsive nature make her dispatches endearing to the readers. This is in stark contrast to the more formal replies she receives from Marks & Co, who return using the most traditional British and businesslike fashion – at least to begin with. However, Hanff’s energy and wit slowly break down the reserve from across the ocean. Soon she is not only sending cheering missives and funds to purchase the books, but also gifts of appreciation – partially to help brighten up the lives of these people living through post-war rationing. As they continue to write each other, we watch their friendship blossom. While their professional association gives them the initial reason to correspond, their personal connections grow, making both parties more human and real, both to each other and to the reader. This is what makes this book so charming, and such a delightful read.
However, some might think that a book written about things that happened over 60 years ago, about a correspondence between continents may seem irrelevant today. On the contrary, watching this bond grow despite never having met face-to-face is something that we today can easily relate to. The internet has made the world such a smaller place than it was before. Today we take for granted how we can become friends with people we’ve never met, just because we share similar interests. And while this relationship never resulted in any romance, Helene and Frank’s worlds became as intertwined as if they had. So reading this book today is no less enjoyable than in its publication year of 1970.
What this book has in spades is an enormous helping of good hearted humanity and honest humor, and that’s what makes it so readable. As mentioned at the outset, one could almost believe that these people are fascinating characters in a work of fiction. Knowing that they really existed makes the reader feel even closer to these people. What’s more, as the letter progress, we can witness how these people developed in their separate lives, as well as within their connection, which is exactly what you’d expect from a well written novel. So while sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, the reality of Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road” is as endearing as any person you’ll come across – both in real life, and in the imagination of a writer. Of course, because this is about real people, it isn’t all laughs. Since the reader is able to connect to Helene and Frank so closely, you could find yourself shedding a tear along the way, in addition to the parts that make you laugh out loud. In short, “84 Charing Cross Road” is a book that writers will adore; book lovers will embrace; and one to delight any and all readers, on both sides of the “pond”. It should be no surprise that I highly recommend this book and give it a full five stars out of five!