84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, is an entertaining, evocative and moving collection of letters sent by the author, from her home in New York, to the staff at an antiquarian bookshop in London. Their correspondence spanned twenty years and resulted in a valued friendship.
There is an essence of the various writers in each letter. The author offsets her impatience with humour. Frank Doel, her main contact at the shop, displays a courteous formality underscored by his obvious wit. The other ‘inmates’ at Charing Cross Road are more curious and open. Even Frank’s wife, their neighbour, and some of the author’s friends eventually become involved.
Each letter is short and concerns the acquisition of books alongside little personal asides. Occasional gifts are exchanged and thanks sent. All parties express an eagerness to one day meet.
It is hard to fathom why such a little book could be quite so captivating, other than the obvious quirks of the writers that are divulged in their writing. The shared love of literature and of the books themselves are appealing to any bibliophile. The historical detail referenced – post war rationing, a coronation, the purchase of a first car, the Beatles – adds to the sense of time passing and the world changing. Little is mentioned of how each correspondent looks allowing the emphasis to be rightly reserved for the people they are inside.
Perhaps it is the lack of explanatory text. The letters are allowed to tell the story and they are enough.
This is a meeting of minds, a shared love, a poignant reminder of what friendship can be. It is a gentle and beautiful read.