Summary (from Goodreads):
84, Charing Cross Road is a charming record of bibliophilia, cultural difference, and imaginative sympathy. For 20 year
s, an outspoken New York writer and a rather more restrained London bookseller carried on an increasingly touching correspondence. In her first letter to Marks & Co., Helene Hanff encloses a wish list, but warns, “The phrase ‘antiquarian booksellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive.” Twenty days later, on October 25, 1949, a correspondent identified only as FPD let Hanff know that works by Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson would be coming under separate cover. When they arrive, Hanff is ecstatic–but unsure she’ll ever conquer “bilingual arithmetic.” By early December 1949, Hanff is suddenly worried that the six-pound ham she’s sent off to augment British rations will arrive in a kosher office. But only when FPD turns out to have an actual name, Frank Doel, does the real fun begin.
Two years later, Hanff is outraged that Marks & Co. has dared to send anabridged Pepys diary. “i enclose two limp singles, i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.” Nonetheless, her postscript asks whether they want fresh or powdered eggs for Christmas. Soon they’re sharing news of Frank’s family and Hanff’s career.
This is a collection of letters (the first half) and diary entries (second half) about one woman’s love affair with books and the person with whom she corresponds in order to purchase the said books. The letters in the first half of the novel are wonderful – Helene Hanff’s clever, no-nonsense, wit, and warmth jump off the page, while Frank Noel’s very English voice – proper, reserved (attempting to be in the later letters) echoe just as re-soundly as Helene’s. What I loved most was also reading the letters from other members of Marks & Co. as they, too, began to correspond with Helene. Seeing an insight into post-war Britain was fascinating, especially that books were being delivered all over the world, while basic necessities were not always available. The last few letters in the first half were the most difficult and most touching – I didn’t think I would be so effected by them.
The second half is a diary that Helene Hanff kept of her visit to London on a book tour to promote her book 84, Charing Cross Street. Again the entries are wonderfully detailed, alive with Helene’s voice, and quite bitter-sweet. Her love-affair with books was second perhaps to Helene’s love affair with London and all things English. And reading about her first encounter with England and how she “… [felt] letdown … and [her] insides offering the opinion that the entire trip was unnecessary” to the comment on the very next day – “… for as long as I live I’ll never forget the moment. From across the street a neat row of narrow brick houses with white steps sat looking up at me. They’re perfectly standard eighteenth-or nineteenth- century houses, but looking at them I knew I was in London.” – I was absorbed into Helene’s discovery of London – the London she had always imagined … “as [her] dreams [were] made on.”
This is a wonderful book about books, people, and the things that we imagine and finally experience, if we’re very lucky. 84, Charing Cross Road reminded me very much of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, also a collection of letters between writer Juliet Ashton and a man from Guernsey, who comes across her name written on the inside of a Charles Lamb book, taking place in post war London. If you have read the latter, you’ll love the former (as I did) or if you have not read either, but want to melt into a world of books, people who love books, and the worlds they inhabit, then this (these) novel(s) is/are for you.