84, Charing Cross Road

A short post for a short book … Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road is a fun little book about books and those who love them. It’s less than 100 pages and is really even shorter than that, as many of the pages have lots of white space. It’s written in epistolary form — a sub-genre I love — and it’s made up of letters between Helene Hanff and a group of people working at Marks & Co., Booksellers. Helene begins the correspondence with a list of used books she wants and a five dollar bill to cover the costs. Frank Doel from the shop replies. They continue to correspond about her book requests, but they also, slowly, become friends. Helene is a funny, witty correspondent while Frank is much more formal and more guarded, but slowly their letters become more personal and a real friendship emerges. It’s a treat to follow the way their letters change as they begin to address each other more personally, to include details about their lives, and to share their love of books.

Frank is not the only one who keeps up a correspondence with Helene; the whole bookshop comes to anticipate her letters and several others from the shop write her back, although they do so behind Frank’s back because he feels as though Helene is his correspondent. The letters begin in 1949, a time of food rationing in England, and to thank the shop for all the books they have found for her, Helene begins to send them parcels with meat and eggs and other things hard to find. Soon Frank’s family is writing Helene to thank her for her gifts. Everyone tries to persuade Helene to come visit London, which she would love to do, if only she had more money.

The book is fun both for all the book talk — Helene has very decided opinions and tastes in books which she is not shy about expressing — and also for the glimpse it gives into London life in the late 1940s through the 1960s. The correspondence continues for over two decades, so we can follow the paths the characters’ lives take as they navigate the tricky post-war time.

I’m not entirely sure whether to call this a novel or not. As I understand it, it’s a true story; Helene Hanff really was a writer who corresponded with the people at Marks & Co. Booksellers, but I’m not sure whether these letters were the ones they really sent. Either way, it’s highly entertaining, and if you are someone who likes books about books, not to be missed.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

14 responses to “84, Charing Cross Road

  1. A reader from England commented on my ‘Guernsey’ post, recommended I read 84 Charing Cross Road because it’s so similar to Guernsey in style and setting. Well, I didn’t find the book but did borrow the movie with Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. It’s a delightful movie. The commenter also mentioned that at that address in London now there’s a plaque marking the bookshop’s location. So I guess it’s fiction based on historical facts (?)

  2. Geraldine

    It is a wonderful book, now look out for the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

  3. It is a lovely book, isn’t it? Hanff’s reading itinerary intrigued me, and the friendship that she and Frank developed was so heartwarming. Definitely a book for all lovers of books!

  4. Isn’t it a fun book? My husband and I read it quite some time ago and we read it together out loud. I’d read Helene’s letters and he’d read Frank’s and the letters from the other bookshop people. We loved it. And when we went to London in 1991 we went to 84 Charing Cross Road. There is no longer a bookshop there, it was a chi-chi cafe when we were there, but there is a plaque on the wall and I have a photo of myself standing next to it in the rain.

  5. I’ve heard of this one, but didn’t realize that Helen corresponded with anyone other than Frank, or that there was the insight into WWII London. I’ve only heard good things about this book, and it’s been on my TBR list for a long time, so hopefully I find a copy of it soon!

  6. After reading your post about your trip and you trying to comprehend all the great things that had happened where you were standing I think you’d love the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury. It’s abou Helene’s eventual visit to London and she’s so enthusiastic about standing where historical figures and writers have done.

  7. Cam

    I’ve never read the book, but I enjoyed the movie made about 20 years ago with Anne Bancroft & Anthony Hopkins. I’ll have to check out the book. Thanks for the review.

  8. I also enjoyed the movie but never read the book. But now I will. Lovely short books are a genre I’ve taken to.

  9. Yet another vote for the movie here – most unusual I should see that rather than read the book, but there it is. I’d love to read it one of these days – I’ve always heard that it is charming and fun.

  10. zhiv

    It’s funny that you read this and wrote about it so soon after reading Parnassus on Wheels. I remember reading Charing Cross years ago, quite liking it, and always thinking that Parnassus was in the same category, sort of, even though I had never read it. A bit surprised that you didn’t mention the movie, which is good, as others have noted. Nothing wrong with nice, charming, enjoyable little books. They’re like the dessert course of literature.

  11. I love this book, too. I was completely charmed when I read it over 20 years ago. I loved the movie, too, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. I think Judi Dench plays Frank Doel’s wife, too, in a little cameo. (Not to be a downer, but the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, is not nearly as good).

  12. Like Litlove, this one is a real rarity for me: I’ve seen the movie but have never read the book, although I’ve been meaning to read it ever since I saw the movie. Maybe this one should go in my TBR challenge. The movie is a must-see (and I gather from the comments here incorporates both the book and its sequel). As always, Anthony Hopkins is flat out fantastic. If you’re not already in love with him, you will be by the end of it.

  13. I loved both the movie and the book. I’ve often thought of rereading some of her books (her others are just as good), but you know how that goes…good intentions and all. You might really like Q’s Legacy, too, as it’s about reading as well. Q being a British professor who sets out a reading list for Hanff to follow (from what I recollect–it’s been a while) and her visits to the library (NYC library) to find them. Also a short, quick read.

  14. Arti — based on everyone’s comments, I clearly need to see the movie! Maybe I’ll have to find the Guernsey book, although I’ve been reluctant because of all the hype and because I don’t like the title. I do know the book is based on historical fact, but I wasn’t sure if the author wrote those actual letters or not. Either way, it’s fun to know the relationships really did exist!

    Geraldine — I’ll definitely have to look out for her other books! Thanks for stopping by.

    Jenclair — I was really interested in her choice of reading as well. She didn’t like novels much, which is hard to believe. At least she found she liked Jane Austen!

    Stefanie — how cool that you visited the site of the bookshop! And what a fun way to read the book you and your Bookman came up with. The book definitely lends itself to reading out loud.

    Steph — I hope you find a copy too. Yes, the cultural background is really fascinating and makes the book that much more enjoyable.

    Jodie — oh, good to know! I find it hard to wrap my mind around the fact that someone famous stood right where I am standing at that particular moment. Perhaps it’s the American in me, not so used to being surrounded by history :)

    Cam — definitely a good book to hunt down, and you can read it in an hour or two — a real treat.

    Lilian — I’ve come to love lovely short books too — they are perfect for certain seasons when I’m particularly busy and need some enjoyment that doesn’t take up too much time.

    Litlove — charming and fun the book certainly is, and I’ll definitely have to look out for the movie. Another reason to join Netflicks, as my local rental place most likely wouldn’t have it.

    Zhiv — they are definitely in the same category, I think, along with The Uncommon Reader. I wonder what others we might add to the list? I suppose I’m being more careful this time around to choose books that will suit my busy and stressed mood right now — usually I charge ahead with more challenging books, just because.

    Gentle Reader — I suspect the sequel might be fun to read, just because, but I’ll be prepared for it to be not as good. Glad to hear another vote for the movie! It sounds like a great cast.

    Emily — oh, fun! It makes sense that the movie would combine both books because together they would provide more narrative closure, I think. And I wouldn’t mind falling in love with Hopkins :)

    Danielle — Q’s Legacy sounds like a lot of fun! I’m curious already to see what’s on that list. And I do know how it goes with reading plans and intentions — we can’t read everything, unfortunately!

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