Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road

A few weeks ago, I was frantically trying to watch a few of the movies on my Netflix Instant queue before they expired on the first of the month. One that I watched was 84 Charing Cross Road, a 1987 film starring Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff, a wise-cracking New York writer with a love affair with classic English literature. Fed up with the lack of such books in America, she writes to Marks & Co, a London antiques bookshop, starting a decades-long friendship with book dealer Frank Doel (masterfully portrayed by Anthony Hopkins). I was charmed, mesmerized, and instantly smitten with the movie. It reminded me very much of Love Letters, a play by A.R. Gurney which consists entirely of two people sitting on stage reading letters back and forth.

After I finished the movie, I immediately searched online to see if it was based on a book (what does that say about Hollywood that a movie I found smart, funny, and witty had to be based on a book?) and it was! A book of letters! Actual letters, in fact, and not fictional, made-up ones. Of course, I immediately bought it, because I was sure I was going to love it. I was so sure, in fact, that I didn't just buy 84, Charing Cross Road, but the Helene Hanff Omnibus which collects all five of Hanff's memoir-esque books into one fat, delicious volume.

The book fortuitously arrived just as I was finishing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate so I was able to immediately dive right in. I skipped over Underfoot in Show Business, the author's memoir of trying to make it as a playwright in 1940's New York, and started in on 84.

I loved it.

The book is short. The first edition only clocked in at 95 pages, but boy howdy, what a 95 pages. Obviously, not every letter is included and often months or even a year or more passes between letters. But despite those omissions, the letters between Hanff and Doel (interspersed with letters to/from others at Marks & Co. and Doel's wife Nora) are everything I expected. Hanff's writing is rich, alive, spontaneous, and open - I could almost hear her shouting in my head. Doel's words are more reserved, filled with British reserve but no less warm.

84, Charing Cross Road is Hanff's loving tribute and memorial to her remarkable two-decade friendship to a man an ocean away, a man who she never met, over a shared love of books.

I do wish that there were more letters - just so that I could have visited longer with Helene, and Frank, and the others. Thankfully, as soon as I finished 84, Charing Cross Road, I was able to immediately start on The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff's diary of her trip to London after the publication of 84.

"I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to."

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