Monday, May 23, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Knowing my love for epistolary novels, a couple of people have suggested 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. It’s not a novel, but a collection of letters that tells a story so delightfully it reads like one. Between October 1949 and January 1969, Helene Hanff, a writer in New York carried on a correspondence with the employees at a used book shop in London at 84, Charing Cross. Her primary contact was Frank Doel, but over time her letters inspired responses from other workers in the shop, Frank’s wife, and even a neighbor. Helene and Frank bonded over their appreciation of books, but a shared sense of humor moved the relationship beyond business to personal. The letters are a joy to read. Helene’s are bold. It takes Frank a little longer to come out of his shell. Although they never meet, you can get a sense of how much they value one another.

The book shows Helene’s personality best because she is the most open, sharing little tidbits of her personal and professional life as she requests new books and praises or complains about the ones she has received. But we are also treated to sidelong views of the booksellers, some of whom move away or pass away during the course of twenty years. It’s amazing how well they portray themselves in so few words. Lives are encapsulated in snapshots.

What I like best about the book is how uplifting it is. These are normal people going about their normal lives and they are open-hearted, trusting, generous, compassionate, grateful, kind, and friendly. What starts out as a commercial transaction – a woman writing an open-ended letter to a used bookseller – blossoms into a twenty-year friendship. It’s pleasant to catch a glimpse of a world in which people are inherently good. I need a little of that every once in awhile.