Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

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84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books centred around bookstores. I find they tend to romanticize an experience I’ve known very well in the real, practical world. So I didn’t begin 84, Charing Cross Road with high hopes, despite the fact that it was recommended to me by a bookseller. In the end, it surprised me. This slim book compiles 20 years of letters between Hanff in NYC and Marks & Cohen Books in London. What begins as a search for books evolves into a friendship with friends that never meet.

This is less a book about books or even bookstores and more a book about people and how they can be drawn together despite physical distance and cultural divide. Helene is brash, sometimes funny, occasionally rude, and often big-hearted while her English penpals tend to be much more restrained. As the letters continue and the relationship grows though the individual personalities of the bookstore employees (and their families) come out in charmingly cheeky ways.

The book also offers a peek into life in London following World War Two. Helene begins to send packages to the bookstore for Christmas, giving her long-distance friends treats like tinned ham and fresh eggs, things that are not available in post-war England. The letters she receives in thanks are quite lovely, demonstrating the deep appreciation for her gifts and the beauty of generosity among strangers.

 

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