I heard about 84 Charing Cross Road through Slightly Foxed a few years ago, and it’s been patiently waiting on my shelf ever since. The moment to read it finally arrived after I finished the harrowing Between Shades of Gray and was in desperate need of something cheerful to warm my heart. I couldn’t have chosen a better book to make me smile!
This is a lovely little book about a struggling American writer in New York and her correspondence with an antiquarian bookshop in London. The first half is a copy of the letters, starting with Helene inquiring after certain out-of-print books that she couldn’t get hold of. What follows is twenty year’s worth of letters, mostly between the reserved (and very British) bookseller Frank and the more chatty Helene. It takes a while for her to break through the very proper and formal shell of Frank’s Britishness (it’s two years before he starts to address her by her first name!) but soon a friendship evolves, with a firm love of literature at its core. In fact, all the staff at Marks and Co. Booksellers soon learn to love Helene and her generous nature, especially the gifts she sends at Christmas and Easter.
Helene keeps having to put off a trip to the literary London of her dreams, usually due to lack of money. But finally, after twenty years and with a book to promote, she makes it. The second half of the book follows her time there in the form of diary entries. She comes across as the most down-to-earth and lovable author you would ever want to meet. I believe I would have got on with her very well.
I read 84 Charing Cross Road while participating in a ‘read only women writers’ challenge and Helene Hanff is a brilliant author to look up to. She was resilient, independent and fantastically witty. She reminds us that life has ups and downs, but there is always the possibility of achieving something worthwhile. After all, success came quite late in her life and I find that very encouraging.
“84, Charing Cross Road was no bestseller, you understand; it didn’t make me rich or famous. It just got me hundreds of letters and phone calls from people I never knew existed; it got me wonderful reviews; it restored a self-confidence and self-esteem I’d lost somewhere along the way, God knows how many years ago. It brought me to England. It changed me life.”