Thursday, February 24, 2011

84 Charing Cross Rd.

"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."

In today's world of social networks, email, and smart phones, it's hard to imagine a friendship forged by pen and ink. But that is exactly what happens in Helene Hanff's story of her 20 year correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer for a London secondhand bookstore. Theirs was a friendship created by chance, but lasting decades. A friendship founded upon humor, compassion, and a love for the written word.

The Plot:

It is 1949 and Helene Hanff is a struggling writer living in New York. Her need for cheap, obscure British classics is fulfilled when she discovers an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature by secondhand bookstore, Marks & Co. She writes to them requesting a few titles, and her order is filled by Frank Doel, the firm's chief buyer. Thus begins a correspondence between the sarcastic American writer and the buttoned-up British bookseller that would last for many years.

But this isn't a cut and dry "please send me this book" correspondence. Helene and Frank talk about EVERYTHING. They talk about family, friends, favorite authors, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Yorkshire pudding, and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. It isn't long before Helene and Frank begin planning for her to visit London. Unfortunately, life continues to get in the way, and it begins to seem like this unique friendship may never be realized beyond the page.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This is a book for book lovers. Thus, I really I enjoyed it. Consisting solely of letters between Helene and the world of Marks & Co., it is not a book for those who desire action, romance, or psychological themes. If, however, you are looking for a short read that packs a lot of heart, humor, and pleasure between its few pages, this is one that I highly recommend.

C. S. Lewis once said that
"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" That is exactly what happens between Helene and Frank. Their mutual love and knowledge of British classics starts their relationship, but it isn't long before it spills over into other areas of their lives. What is most amazing is that a love of books is about the only thing they truly have in common. She's a brash female American, he's a middle-class, proper Brit. She's single, he's married with kids. She's for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he's for the Tottenham Hotspur F. C. Nevertheless, their friendship does nothing but deepen over time into a satisfying and comfortable camaraderie.

Not only does Helene make friends with Frank, but she also becomes somewhat of a legend within the world of Marks & Co. She receives numerous letters from the other employees as well as from Frank's wife, Nora. It is a fascinating glimpse into life in post-war London, especially into the hardships of rationing. Most of us cannot imagine feeling overwhelming delight for powdered eggs, tinned meat, and pantie hose. These people do.

The other thing that makes this story delightful is the types of books that Helene and Frank encounter. These isn't yesterday's newest romance novel, but heavy, obscure British classics. Everyone from Jane Austen to Charles Lamb to John Donne to Geoffery Chaucer show up here. It surely warms the heart of this Anglophile.

I read this book on a slow rainy day at the office, and that is exactly the kind of atmosphere that this book was meant to be read in. It's a book to curl up with on a rainy day, letting it wrap you like a warm blanket. Comfortable, heartwarming, hilarious, and delightful. A must read for anyone who likes to read.

The Movie:

It didn't take long for Hanff's book to become somewhat of a cult classic. Many adaptations have been done ranging from stage plays to radio theaters to Broadway. There has only been one film adaptation, so far, and it is a good one. That is the 1982 version starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, and Judi Dench. Like the book, this movie will not appeal to everyone, but it does justice to the story and Bancroft is wonderful as Hanff. If you like the book, this is one you should see. My only qualm is that the pace of the book doesn't quite hold up on film, making everything seem pretty slow.

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