Monday, 23 January 2017

#CBR9 Books 4 and 5: "84 Charing Cross Road" and "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street" by Helene Hanff

Combined page count: 230 pages
Rating: 5 stars

In October 1949, New York writer sends off a letter to a bookshop in London, Marks & Co, on 84 Charing Cross Road. She is looking for reasonable second-hand books and luckily the staff at Marks & Co are able to help her. By Christmas, as she has heard that everyone in the UK are still on rationing, she has ordered a whole ham and a lot of powdered eggs to be shared out among the staff and her generosity prompts the mysterious FPD that she's been corresponding with is in fact called Frank Doel.

The outgoing and often very impulsive American writer and the more restrained English bookseller carry out a correspondence over the years, with the occasional letter included from other people in the store, and later Frank's wife Nora, who are all blown over by Ms. Hanff's continued generosity. She keeps insisting on sending food parcels to the store around every big holiday, and before long, she is receiving Christmas presents from the thankful staff as well. The correspondence, which chiefly focuses on the books Ms. Hanff requests, and a love of reading, come to include stories of their everyday lives, information about their families and career ambitions (in the case of Ms. Hanff). Her many eventual friends in the UK keep admonishing her to visit, but every time she gets closer to her goal of saving up enough, something big interferes and she has to put it off for a while longer. Sadly, in January 1969, after nearly 20 years of letters back and forth, Ms. Hanff is notified by a secretary at Marks & Co that Frank Doel has passed away. His daughter gives her permission to publish his letters, however, in what became 84 Charing Cross Road.

Said book and it's strange and wonderful success is what finally allows Helene Hanff to travel to London, but not until the summer of 1971, while still recovering from a hysterectomy. For five weeks, she is able to visit her beloved London, although she's terrified when she gets off the plane. She gets to meet several of the friends she made during her many years of corresponding, even though the bookshop Marks & Co is now closed. Her English publishers put her up in a lovely little hotel in Bloomsbury and various friends, family of former correspondents and fans of her book all insist on treating her to the time of her life, hence the title of her next book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. She really feels wonderfully pampered during her stay, and while sadly she never manages to see the inside of the Tower of London, she nonetheless gets to visit a fair amount of locations in the London and its surroundings.

Made up from her diary entries while she was in England, the book gives somewhat more insight into Ms. Hanff and her dreams, fears and insecurities. I'm not surprised that she has adoring fans that want to show her every courtesy, I loved both books immensely. They're both such quick, witty and entertaining reads. I know that there is a film based on 84 Charing Cross Road, I should probably try to find a copy and watch it. The paperback I got at my local library contained both books, and even so, I was able to read both in a couple of indulgent afternoons. I've heard of both the film and the book, and am delighted that I finally read it.

Judging a book by its cover: A delicate creamy golden colour for the cover, with the shopfront of Marks & Co, where Ms. Hanff bought her books for so many years (but which had sadly closed by the time she visited London) at the bottom, showing the reader just what the bookstore looked like and allowing the reader to imagine its loyal employees, who all became such dear friends to Ms. Hanff. An open second-hand book at the top shows the reader that they are most certainly also central in this story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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