In her follow up volume to “84, Charing Cross Road“, Hanff takes you on a ride through her adventures in London in “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.” After 20 years of corresponding with the Doel family and a burning desire to visit London, Hanff finally cashes in on her worldwide popularity with the publication of “84” and, at age 55 in 1971, decides to walk the streets of a city that was the source of her fantasies… and success.
Following some similar formats in the way of letters, Hanff captures her trip in a journal encased in amazingly detailed descriptions of London’s citywide layout. Personally, as I read this, I wish I had an atlas or Google Maps to virtually share her travels. Helene Hanff has a very distinct personality of an American from New York and her neurotic behavior is cleverly comical as she attends book tour commitments throughout London. With new characters like the Colonel (someone who might be described as a groupie, or a stalker) and the management team of her London based publisher Andre Deutsch who wrangle her through her tour, you also get to meet, as Hanff did, Nora and Sheila Doel… the family of Frank Doel, who was the other half of Helene’s charming 20-year-long letter communications to London’s Marks and Co. Booksellers in “84”.
This follow up has much of the same charm and character as its predecessor and, as before, it showcases a wonderful older generation of class and style with it. Hanff’s encounters with the British lifestyle she’s always envisioned are endearing and highlights what expectations do to someone who takes on her dreams in midlife. A fun and heartwarming ride with Helene through London in the 70s will make you often laugh. While it could be read on its own, I highly encourage reading “84, Charing Cross Road” to truly appreciate all that went into the need for this follow up book. If you like the storytelling of folks like Nora Ephron, you’ll love Helene Hanff.
After finishing “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the power of correspondence. Hanff, through her own personal accounts, shares the ability to know the people you’ve never met. As an incarcerated person myself, most new friendships I strike up with the world beyond are through the power of writing, so Hanff’s ability to befriend a whole bookstore staff on another continent speaks volumes of how powerful written communication truly is.
This review comes with a spoiler alert. If you chose to quit reading here any further, rest assured you will be pleased with the language, settings, and quality of character depicted on the pages of this book. Its style and prose is as quaint as an antique bookshop, complete with the commonality of typos. There is a remarkable amount of charisma to be found at 84, Charing Cross Road…
Helene Hanff, a New York writer, takes you on a written relationship with her new friend Frank Doel starting in the fall of 1949. Frank is a shopkeeper for an antique bookstore in post WWII London. Their continued communication is a historical glimpse into how they became decades old friends. Frank and his wife, Nora, along with other workers in the shop like Cecily and Megan, cheerfully struggle with the rationing efforts of a Europe being rebuilt. As a customer, Helene writes often to Frank to get great deals on genuine literary treasures only found in the old world of England and it occurs to her what these people must be going through. She begins to send packages of meats and eggs in a show of solidarity with her new war-torn friends.
84 Charing Cross Road (1987)
Frank ensures that he works diligently at providing her with quality, timeless works and a uniquely British charm. In time, London heals and as Helene’s relationship with Frank and his family ages, Helene gets to become amazingly close with the lives of his wife and children, also. Through the 1950’s and 60’s, Helene keeps a hope that her fortunes will materialize and she could hop a ship to England to visit. As a writer, she lives from one opportunity to the next writing scripts for the newly exploding medium of television. As all things do, there becomes a point in the book where, as a reader, you realize that nothing can last forever. Bad news is conveyed regarding the loss of bookstore’s most knowledgable attendant and condolences are offered through the written word in the most heartfelt and loving manners.
This collection of letters is a short read, but with an extraordinary amount of humanity on every page. I challenge you to not become invested with this stoic cast of characters from a time when society was extremely dignified and cultured, even in its hardships. This book will touch you on a very human level.
*Note from Melissa: This is one of the rare movies that followed the book so closely – much like To Kill A Mockingbird. It is (as of today) available on Amazon Prime Video, and I highly recommend it. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, check your local library for the book and/or movie.