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Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (4/5)

22 Aug

I can’t remember where I heard about this book. I think it may have been after I read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn and I had a brief fascination with epistolary novels. This one is wonderful, quick and cutting to the soul. It was a great pool-side read for my recent vacation.

Cover image via Goodreads

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Summary from Goodreads:

This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

I didn’t expect such a short book to have so much of an impact on me. Hanff has an amazing way with words. You can feel her implied tone in her letters and you get a great sense of her personality. When the correspondence expands to include other employees of the shop and Frank’s family, you can feel the impact this relationship has had on their community. Hanff’s generosity was so unexpected in their post-war London and it went a long way to winning their affection.

Hanff had the most personality in her letters and I adored reading one from her. The others were a bit harder to distinguish and I had to look at who signed the letter when I started reading it so I would know who was speaking. Hanff’s sarcasm, manor, and energy screamed from the page, it was wonderful.

Nora was my favorite character. She didn’t have the personality of Hanff, but she had a deep appreciation for the relationship Hanff and Frank shared. She wasn’t jealous and was very appreciative of what Hanff could do for her family and friends. I’d like to hope that the relationship continued on after the book ended.

The love of books the characters shared was mesmerizing for a book lover. I also loved the idea of a store always on the lookout for a beautiful edition of a rare book and I kept picturing myself combing through a second-hand store or a personal library looking for a buried gem. It sounds like such a fun and exciting job. Funny enough, this book was a bit hard for me to find a copy of and I ended up locating it in a second-hand shop a year after I started looking for it.

Helene Hanff
Image via Hogglestock

The food that Hanff sent to her friends was so incredibly described. I can’t imagine living in a city with such strict food rations and how great of a gift an egg could be. The selflessness of her gifts and the frequency of them showed her nature and it made me want to be friends with someone who could so generously give of herself. I think the British members of this story were a little lost on how they could repay such generosity.

It was clear there were a good number of missing letters. Large stretches of time would pass and there would be references to letters we didn’t read or books that were never requested. I’m unsure if this is due to lost letters or selection. I hope it’s loss and Hanff isn’t holding back on us!

The friendship these virtual strangers formed is beautiful. They bonded over a love of books and stayed together over a genuine desire to care for other human beings. Hanff is a beautiful soul and is lucky to have found kindred spirits through a love of writing. Friendships formed over a deep love for something can be very strong. I think we can all think of a similarly deep relationship.

Writer’s Takeaway: The letters Hanff shares are beautiful and personal. I loved that she shared getting permission to publish them at the end of the book. The journey doesn’t end until publication. The relationship Helene and Frank shared and the way it expanded to those around them was beautiful and I loved how she showed it’s growth. I think Hanff realized she had something special. I’m glad she published it for others to enjoy.

A beautiful picture of friendship and a love of books. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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