Friday, December 31, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews '84, Charing Cross Road'

The Book: 84, Charing Cross Road

The Author: Helene Hanff

How I Found It: This wonderful review at The Broke and The Bookish. Thanks, R! :)

The Review: Used books seemed to be the love of Helene Hanff's life. She didn't want to own new ones, instead preferring those that had been owned and read, loved, by others before her. Looking for some rare English books, the American Hanff began a correspondence with a bookstore in London.

Her letters were answered by FPD, later Frank Doel, a reserved, very English man intent on doing his job, providing books for the witty, often mock-annoying woman writing for his assistance. Over time, Helene's correspondence with Frank and the others at 84, Charing Cross Road becomes a friendship and a business relationship that lasts twenty years, and the letters are both fun and touching to read.

Like Hanff and the reviewer who led me to this book, R, I love used books and bookstore. Actually, I think half of my favorite books are ones I got used, either from stores or from Paperbackswap. (Even my copy of this book is used!) My battered and yellowed copy of Little Women, the spine practically bent inward, found in a crate at a used bookstore, was the inspiration behind my college essay. Half of my Jane Austens had owners before me. I could get new editions, my own editions, but I like that my used books have character. The spines might be wrecked, the pages might be wavy or yellowed, but these books were loved!

So I knew as soon as I read the review that I'd probably love the book, and I did! Hanff really did have something special with the workers at Charing Cross Road, and I'm sure all of us book lovers would love to have something like she did. (I'm pretty sure the bookstore owners in my college town only knew me as "strange girl in red coat," anyway...) It's really sweet to read the letters that don't directly involve books, but are instead expressions of gratitude. Hanff sends over meat and other things that are rationed in England; Doel's wife responds by sending a beautiful tablecloth, for example.

It's also nice to watch as Hanff's relationship to the other employees develops. One contacts her secretly for a while, as she jokes that Frank seems to want to be the only one writing to her. One gift from Hanff inspires at least four or five letters of gratitude, and over time, Hanff bonds with them all. After Hanff asks what FPD stands for, Frank begins to sign his letters with his actual name. His reserve slowly melts, and the reader gets to see as he becomes warmer, even joking on occasion, taking in stride Hanff's purposely needling requests.

Overall, this is a really sweet, short (I read it in an hour) story that any book lover would enjoy. A love for books can evolve into something truly special, which is just what it did here. Hanff's friendship with these wonderful employees is touching and will leave you with a smile on your face as well as a lump in your throat, just like it did for me.

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