84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
What The Back of the Book Has to Say:
"This book is the very simple story of the love affair between Miss Helene Hanff of New York and Messrs Marks and Co, sellers of rare and secondhand books, at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. It is an unmitigated delight from cover to cover."
Why I Picked It Up:
Combination of ideal purse size, something seemingly light after grabbing a few 'classics' and my recent wave of affection and nostalgia for London
What I Think:
Now, I'm the kind of person that normally goes into a book happily not knowing anything about the plot. I would rather have it gradually unveiled to me as I read than have assumptions running around in my head, the reading becoming just a sort of strange wait for what I assume is going to happen. In 99.9% of cases, I would recommend going into a book with only what the the front and back cover offer you. This, however, only holds true if you actually pay attention to what the covers are trying to tell you.
To be honest, Charing Cross is not so much a novel as a collection of letters written between Helene Hanff of New York and a small, secondhand bookshop in London over a period of twenty years. Through the fifties and the sixties, despite never meeting in person, Helene becomes the shop's most popular customer. She corresponds not only with Frank Doels, the original bookseller to write back, but with the secretary, Frank's wife, and even an adorable old woman that lives nearby.
Through their letters, we see the various inhabitants of this world deal with world wars, rationing, the strange early sixties and various other historical occurrences that affected daily life. It's a window into the past, as well as a window into a strange, epistolary relationship. The end comes abruptly, as surely the end to the correspondence came in real life, but overall the book is a journey that starts from nowhere and ends up a strangely deep bond you can feel through the printed words.
The one thing I didn't manage to pick up from some very obvious hints the covers were trying to give was that this book is, in fact, nonfiction. Helene Hanff was a real struggling writer in New York and Frank Doels a real bookseller in (what I assume to be) an adorable little bookstore in London. All the letters are real, collected after the fact and published originally in the seventies. How I missed all this, I'm not entirely sure. You'd think I would pick up on the fact that one of the main characters has the exact same name as the author, at least. Sometimes I can be really slow about obvious things.
The most embarrassing fact of this whole misunderstanding is that I found myself judging character development in a publication of collected letters. I was thinking things like "wow, the author is really pushing this characterization" or "definitely trying way too hard to create a situation." All the while, this being completely factual accounts. How embarrassing.
My edition of the novel actually included a second piece. After reading the letters, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (an included diary of Ms. Hanff's she kept during a later promotional tour of London) manages to be both funny and strangely poignant. It's really easy to fall into the emotions of Ms. Hanff as she finally discovered the world she had come so close to years and years before. She becomes a local celebrity and she can't really believe her luck. At the same time, though, there is this strange sensation that it's all too little, too late-- that she somehow missed her moment. The mix of melancholy and joy create an interesting mood, especially knowing that this, too, is a published diary account.
The novel is a very quick read-- I think it only took me about a day. Epistolary novels always tend to be rather quick. It's definitely worth reading, though. If you're someone who loves books, if you're someone who loves relationships, if you're someone who loves England or New York, you will love this book.