review: Marla Cantrell
By Helene Hanff Penguin Books | 97 pages | $13
Recently, a new friend, and fellow book lover, welcomed me into her home. At her kitchen table, she’d stacked books she thought I’d like. As someone who typically reads a book a week, I thought I had a handle on most of the great contemporary literature.
But when I left, I had a list of book recommendations, and three books she’d loaned me. I devoured them and loved them all, each for different reasons. The one I’m sharing with you today is 84, Charing Cross Road, a slim volume of correspondence between an often-struggling freelance writer in New York City, and the staff of a used bookstore in London, whose advertisement she found in 1949.
For twenty years, Helene Hanff wrote letters to the shop, asking for obscure books she couldn’t wait to read. Mostly self-taught, Helene seemed to exist on these great books. Her correspondence was brassy and funny and brilliant. All her American charm seemed to soften the resolve of the British shopkeeper, Frank Noel, whose formal letters became friendlier as the months progressed.
Helene was the talk of the shop, and soon others on staff snagged her address and sent letters of their own, including photos of their families, and even a recipe for Yorkshire Pudding. Helene, in return, knew the Brits were still rationing certain foods, a residual effect of World War II. She started sending care packages to the staff, making sure they had meat and eggs and sweets for the holidays. She even found a way to get nylon stockings to the ladies at 84, Charing Cross Road.
As the years wore on, a deep friendship formed between Helene and Frank. Helene shared her successes, writing for the TV shows The Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Ellery Queen. Frank talked about his family, his second wife whom he loves deeply. His first wife who died so young. In 1965, he admitted he “rather likes the Beatles,” a bit of a shock from this middle-aged bookseller.
Always, Helene seemed to be saving for a trip to London. When her friend Maxine visited, she wrote to Helene, describing the bookstore’s smell. “It combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood,” she wrote, and Helene’s heart ached for her chance to see this place she’d come to love.
As I thought about a book to review, I picked up 84, Charing Cross Road several times and put it down. I wondered if it was the right choice for a wide audience. And it is not a new book. In fact, a movie and play about the book were made after its initial release. But I think it is relevant today, not only for book lovers, but for all of us who have friends who make our lives so much better. This book shows the progression of such a relationship, between two people an ocean apart who found a way to stay friends for the rest of their lives.