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.