Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


5 Stars


Oh, what do I say about this book? As someone wary of non-fiction, I never expected to fall in love with a book from that genre. So much so that I have been recommending the book to every reader I know.


It’s strange, isn’t it? If you have read the book, you’d have guessed the reason. For those who haven't, I’m hoping this review will make you pick up the book ASAP.


84, Charing Cross Road is the address of an old bookstore from the 1940s. Imagine a writer, a book lover writing letters from America to London and asking them to send her favorite works of literature. Oh, I could make a list of those! Her views and opinions of books, their writers, the print, and the books' condition are a treat to read.


This book is a simple collection of letters written over two decades. That’s it. There is nothing else in the book. Yet, it has everything. Those two decades show the social, political, and economic conditions of both countries while taking us through the lives of the author and the people she interacted with.


Google will tell us that the book has been made into a movie. It was adapted to the theatre by different houses, and BBC Radio turned it into a radio drama. Some of you might be aware of this (not everyone lives under the rock as I do).


The book was published in 1970, and the author finally visited the place in 1971, after the bookstore was shut down. She mentioned the trip in one of her books, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, published in 1973.


From writing the first letter in 1949 to corresponding with the staff, making friends, building bonds, and becoming a part of their lives, the author maintained a connection with them until 1968 when a tragedy occurred (spoilers). She continued to stay in touch with the rest and considers them very much a part of her life.


The book has one letter after another, with the date and address for us to know who has written it. The initial letters show the communication from both sides to establish who is who. As we read, the letters are spaced farther apart with either the sent or the received version shared with us.


Through the letters that are hardly more than a page long, we get to know even the tiniest details about the people who wrote them. Frank Doel, for example, is the man who took care of Hanff’s correspondence. His proper and formal letters were an amusing contrast to the cheery and lighthearted letters by the author.


Little by little she wears out his reserve and shows us the happy man he is. We meet his wife, his children, the owner of the bookstore, other employees, and even a neighbor of Doel. The author sends some of her friends to visit the store, and we see a few letters she corresponded with them about their visits.


The exchange between these people wasn’t limited to letters and books. Hanff sends them presents for Christmas, Easter, and for no reason except that she wants to help them have enough food in their homes. Times were rough after World War II, and she does her bit to help those she never met. The love and bond they share make this book much more than a collection of letters. It is a collection of emotions, ideas, thoughts, and lives.


We can see how the author finds ways to postpone her travel to the country for over twenty years (for genuine reasons and because she fears travel). And one day, she realizes it’s too late. It was after that that she decided to publish the letters, which brought her success and fame like none of her other works did.


As a playwright and struggling writer, she lived in a tiny apartment with enough money to have the roof over her head, some food for her tummy, and the rest for her books and the people she came to love.


What I loved the most is how wonderfully the sentiments flowed through the letters to the reader. This was the first book where I experienced the power of non-fiction in its purest form. It set a high standard, and considering my wariness, I’m not sure if I’d even want to risk reading another and feel disappointed by comparing it to this book.


But, that’s for later. This book, readers, is something you should read. I don’t usually make such statements. 84, Charing Cross Road is an exception.

About the Author: Srivalli Rekha is a blogger, writer, and amateur photographer. She got a degree in MBA and MA English Literature and chose to become a writer and a poet instead of a corporate professional.

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