When I finished reading this book, I was overwhelmed. I’m actually giving this book a 5-star rating. (And I NEVER give out 5 stars. Well, hardly ever.) This is definitely on the list of the Best Books I’ve Read This Year! Note: It’s an older book, originally published in 1970. But I hope that won’t stop you from reading this wonderful peek into the past.
So, in honour of those 5 stars, I’ll give 5 reasons why I loved this book…
84, Charing Cross Road // by Helene Hanff
#1 – The Letters
If you’ve never read this book, then let me tell you that it is written in a series of letters. What makes this so unique is that the letters are between a woman writer who lives in New York City and a bookseller in post-World War II London. Why is she writing to a bookseller across an ocean? She wants books! (Yes, these are the pre-Amazon days. She apparently was ahead of her time.)
This is probably one of the best epistolary book I’ve ever read. First, because it uses the art of letter-writing so well. And second, it doesn’t fall into the trap of most epistolary books… where letter-writing characters write about things for the sake of us (the reader), thus creating unrealistic correspondence. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that the letters are indeed real. (This is a non-fiction book, after all.)
#2 – The Books
This is really a must-read if you love books or bookstores or … well, anything related to books. (Come to think of it, if you like books, you’ll probably like bookstores and anything related to books!) I love how Helene talks about her favourite books. And in one letter, reveals how much she despises novels. Then in a later letter, well… I’ll let her words say it all:
Favourite Quote: “You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind over Pride & Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library til you find me a copy of my own.” (p.51)
#3 – The Unanswered Questions
I love that there are unanswered questions in this book. Just like in real life. People come and people go out of that life. (Often I think of a person from my past and wonder “What ever happened to them?”)
And there are missing letters in this exchange of correspondence. But I was never confused. I felt that it all gave an air of reality. Yes, I loved the reality of this book.
#4 – The Friendship
If you’re looking for a romance in this story, you won’t find it. Now, I love a good romance as well as the next person. But I LOVED that this book was about friendship. A friendship chronicled in letters.
The correspondence starts with Helene addressing a letter to the “Gentlemen” at Marks & Co. (Bookstore), 84, Charing Cross Road, London. The response is to “Dear Madam”. In subsequent letters, we see the salutations evolve to “Dear Helene” and “Dear Frank” (or sometimes, in Helene’s case, she’ll address him as “Hey, Frankie” or “SLOTH”.
Favourite Quotes: “[Letter from Helene] I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.” (p.3)
“To All at 84, Charing Cross Road: Thank you for the beautiful book… Would you believe it arrived on my birthday? I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf… And why didn’t you sign your names? I expect Frank wouldn’t let you…” (p.27)
#5 – The History
The historian in me was in heaven as I read this… realizing that this book is written in letters by REAL people at the time in which this story is set. This book is actually categorized as non-fiction. Which means it really happened! And knowing that the book-Helene is the same as author-Helene, well, I can certainly believe she didn’t fiddle with artistic license. (With her disdain for fiction!)
While I love a well-written historical novel, there’s something wonderful about a book that actually comes out of experience of the time period. And this book has that in spades. We have the post-war rationing; the death of the King George; the re-election of Churchill; the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth…
Favourite Quote: “11th June, 1953… Dear Helene, Just a note to let you know that your parcel arrived safely on June 1, just in time for our Coronation Day celebrations…” (p.59)
Finally, after reading this book, I wanted to go to 84, Charing Cross Road! But alas, the bookstore is no longer there… (I read somewhere that it’s a MacDonald’s now??? Say it ain’t so!)
Have you read this book? Did you love it as much as me? Let me know in the comments!