84, Charing Cross Road. Helene Hanff. New York: Avon Books, 1970. 97 pp.
From the very beginning of this amusing little book, the personalities and humors of Helene Hanff and Frank Doel burst off the page. Ms. Hanff is a playwright and screenwriter in New York City. Her brisk and vivacious tone comes bumping and skidding into the quiet and proper life of Mr. Doel, manager of a bookshop in England. She demands, scolds, and makes light. He is ever polite, business-like, and sincere.
Their letters begin in October of 1949. Through the correspondence that turns from business to familiar, we learn of life in post-War England. The lack of meat and eggs horrifies Helene. She finds it an easy and charitable thing to send hard-to-get items as gifts. And while Frank and his staff find rations hard to come by, they meet the needs of the American finding the rare and out-of-print books that will be cheaper than she can find in the States.
The twenty-year-long correspondence is not just between Frank and Helene. Other members of the staff, neighbors, and Frank’s family all write letters to the American writer. Helene’s influence is wide.
I enjoyed the relationship Helene had with her books and I was so glad she met her match in Frank. He knew and understood books just as she. He could converse with her about condition and content, and he could find the antique books that had become merely long-forgotten treasures.
This charming book was made into a movie in 1987 with Helene played by Anne Bancroft and Frank played by Anthony Hopkins.
I laughed out loud. I moaned in grief. I cheered and I sighed. I heard their unique voices through their letters. I read this slim volume – only 97 pages – in one sitting. The epistles were sparse, but seamlessly woven together, moving us forward with the characters over the years. In no time at all, I grew to love Frank and Helene.
Even the deepest of friendships can begin over a simple query.