84, Charing Cross Road (1970)
by Helene Hanff (1916-1997)
This is a small book, a collection of letters between Ms. Hanff in New York and her bookseller in London, between 1949 and 1969. A couple of threads are interesting. First, is the range of books that she found interesting, primarily personal testimony about life, in various places and times and definitely not “just stories”. Next is the relationship that developed between a customer and the staff at a small shop, separated by thousands of miles (never crossed) and a gulf of propriety (eventually bridged). Third is the manifestation of (to oversimplify and stereotype) an American generosity to people suffering post-war hardships, by a person of very modest means.
In all these threads, I found something interesting. The personality of Ms. Hanff shines through immediately, in stark contrast to her more reserved British correspondents. By the end (only two or three hours) I was thoroughly involved in the lives of all the participants. Clearly, the book tells a good story, and reveals a little about the way people lived in a certain place and time.
[the portion above was written 4 June 1997]
We recently saw the videotape version of the film based on this book, with Ann Bancroft. It is closer to the book than any other film I can recall, drawing slightly on some other writings of Ms. Hanff for dramatic effect.
The film had much the same effect on me as I recall the book had two years ago, and I would recommend anyone read the book, and then see the film.
I find it interesting that this book is just the kind of book that Ms. Hanff says in her letters that she prefers: a description of real people’s lives, not just made-up stories.