Wednesday 14 February 2018

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

My TBR pile is out of control and this year I endeavour to make a dint on it.

I've been going gang-busters so far. The year long #LesMisReadalong counts as one book (although I acquired a second edition of Les Mis so that I could compare translations, so it also counts as a fail!)

I've read two of my Iris Murdoch books in the huge a Murdoch-a-month #IMreadalong with two more to be read in 2019 (May and September). But again, I'm in the process of acquiring a 5th Murdoch...2 steps forward, 1 step back!

84 Charing Cross Road is my first read from my Personal Challenge as voted by you, my devoted readers :-)

Given the number of books on my TBR pile, for 84 Charing Cross Road to receive FIVE votes was extraordinary, so I went into this book with very HIGH hopes.

My first surprise was that it's an epistolary story and my second surprise was that my edition actually contains two stories. The second one is titled The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and it takes up the bulk of the 230 pages.

I read 84 Charing Cross Road in two reading sessions. The back cover describes it as 'delightfully reticent love affair', but I never felt like I was reading a love story, unless you count the love of books as a love affair.

The relationship between Helene and Frank and between Helene and many of Frank's colleagues and also his wife, Nora are all about friendship and shared interests.

It's 1949 and Helene is a New Yorker desperate to find copies of her favourite books that aren't 'expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and Noble's grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.' Frank is the buyer at Marks & Co antiquarian book-sellers, charged with responding to her letters and tracking down her book requests.

He begins by signing off with his initials, then Frank Doel and eventually (after 8 years) just Frank.

Helene is extraordinarily generous. When she discovers via British neighbours that Londoners are still struggling under strict post-war rationing, she sends food hampers. This sparks off a flurry of letters from the other staff of Marks & Co who simply have to thank her for her thoughtfulness.

Daily lives and individual personalities are gradually revealed, letter by letter. It made me sad for the lost art of letter writing. The depth of feeling and character development that evolved with time was so gorgeous and done without the use of one single emoticon!


It's also sad because Frank suddenly dies and Marks & Co eventually closes before Helene has a chance to visit England. Twenty years of correspondence finished just like that. Helene obviously still had some contact with Nora and her daughters, but without the shared interest of books and Frank, the relationship may have waned. Helene's decision to write a book changed all that. With Nora's permission 84 Charing Cross Road was born and a way finally opened up for Helene to visit London.

Which brings us to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

It is now 1971 and Helene is jetting off to England for the very first time. The Duchess is written more as a diary story and takes us, chronologically, through her extended visit.

I responded to Helene's mix of excitement and apprehension about finally seeing all the sights of England that she had dreamed about for so long. Her high expectations were met and confounded in equal measure. But this second story lacked the warmth or heart of the first. Helene herself explained some of the difference,
Not till I got home did it dawn on me that they and I had completely reversed roles. Coming abroad, where nobody knew them, Eddie and Isabel had rid themselves of a lot of social inhibitions. Coming abroad, where nobody knows me, I've acquired a whole set of inhibitions I never had at home.

The letters in 84 Charing Cross Road are so appealing, charming and funny, in large part thanks to Helene's BIG personality that jumps and bounces off every page.

The Duchess was a lovely way to round off the story and for anyone who has had the experience of turning up in London for the first time after a lifetime of reading books set there, it will resonate strongly.

A BIG thank you to Jean, Mary R, Jillian, Jennifer & JoAnn for the voting recomendation. It was a beauty!

I now plan to hunt down a copy of the movie and hope to one day see a stage production.


  1. Anonymous14/2/18

    Sounds delightful Bron - can I borrow it next?

  2. It's been so many years, that I don't remember if I saw the movie or read the book first. Regardless, Helene Hanff has been one of my favorite writers ever since.

  3. I love these books so much - there are FIVE in all!! And I used to enjoy walking past the site when I lived in London, even though it was never a bookshop while I was there. I'm so excited about finding out which IM arrives with you - isn't that the one where you can't remember which one it is?

    1. I didn't realise that Hanff had written three more books - I'm very curious now - are they also on the whole London, old books and letters theme?

      And yes, the one on order is the one I cannot remember the title. It will be a surprise for all of us :-)

    2. One is about New York, at least one other about being in London. 84 is the best, though.

  4. I read "Charing Cross Road" quiet a while ago and really enjoyed it. One of my all time favourite book-books.

    Thanks for your review.
    Marianne from Let's Read

  5. I saw the movie first and then read the book (the first volume) years later. I loved both and the film version still held up when I watched it again after finally reading the book.

    And which edition(s) of Les Mis are you reading? I haven't started it but I do want to get to it this year. I have both the Signet mass-market paperback and the Penguin clothbound hardcover. I also have the Everyman's Library edition from the library. Pretty sure I can check it out in perpetuity.

    1. I'm looking forward to the movie of 84 a lot - I'm thrilled that it still holds up.

      I'm reading the hardcover clothbound Penguin translated by Norman Denny. I'm enjoying his version - the language has a classic feel even though some of his translation choices are at odds with others. I also have a vintage copy of the Rose translation that I'm reading alongside as I have the time. In a good week, I read both versions of the chapter back to back. But some weeks I catch up with the Rose on the weekends. Her language is more casual and very readable, but sometimes the modern phrasing jars and seems out of place in a classic story.

      I hope you join us soon. The chapter a day is very do-able and makes it possible to read other books around it quite easily.

  6. Yes, my husband & I watched the movie not too long ago with Anne Bancroft & Anthony Hopkins -- neat friendship over books by mail. Frank's sudden death is quite sad -- and why didn't Helene ever go before in time, ugh! As a side note, I just read & reviewed my first Liane Moriarty book -- thanks for your post on her books not too long ago. I chose Big Little Lies first based on your recommendations. Cheers part of my Aussie challenge already.

    1. Delighted you enjoyed Big Little Lies - that's what I love about this blogging life - how we help each other find new books and authors to try :-)


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