Tuesday, December 6, 2011

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road is a charming but slight book that presents the correspondence between New York writer Helene Hanff and a rare book store in London. In 1949, Hanff saw an ad for Marks & Co. in the Saturday Review and sent off an inquiry regarding several books she had been unable to find in New York. Frank Doel, who handled her request, became a regular correspondent and long-distance friend. With Britons still subject to rationing, Hanff felt moved to send "care" packages to the employees of Marks & Co., many of whom responded with their own letters, sparking additional friendships.

The letters trace Hanff's search for books, as well as the general outlines of her writing career (she wrote for the Ellery Queen television series, among other jobs), British and American politics, and her long-postponed plan to visit London and her friends at the bookstore. Unfortunately, Doel died before Hanff made the trip: the last letter in the book is from one of his daughters, agreeing to publication of the letters.

I have to admit that I thought 84, Charing Cross Road was an epistolary novel--and I liked it better when I was suffering under that delusion. Helene is charming as a fictional character; oddly, as an author publishing her own letters, for me she becomes somewhat too self-consciously clever and kind. Still, the book only takes about an hour to read and it's definitely worth that.

Favorite passage:
i go through life watching the english language being raped before me face. like miniver cheevy, i was born too late.
and like miniver cheevy i cough and call it fate and go on drinking.

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