From the back cover:
This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.
As promised, 84, Charing Cross Road is indeed a completely charming collection of letters, selected from twenty years’ worth of correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. It all begins in October 1949, when Helene writes to Marks and Co., Booksellers—located in London—to inquire whether some out-of-print items on her wishlist might be located. Her letter is answered by an employee who signs his replies “FPD.” While Helene is personable from the start, and definitely quirky, her correspondent takes some time to warm up. After she hears of the rationing going on in England, however, and arranges for a package of rare food items to be delivered to the shop (a practice she will continue for several years), he writes to thank her for her kindness and reveals that his name is Frank Doel.
Helene can sometimes come across as rude in her letters, though even complaints about delays or unsuitable editions typically have a postscript inquiring about what kind of eggs the staff at Marks and Co. would like her to send (fresh eggs being extremely hard to come by in the postwar years) or something along that line. Part of this can be attributed to her attempt to “puncture that proper British reserve,” and in time, the letters from England do grow quite warm and friendly. When Frank first addresses her as Helene, I actually got a bit verklempt! Eventually, she begins to correspond with Frank’s wife as well as a few other employees of the shop. Through the years, Helene is urged many times to come visit. Though she makes several attempts to save money, life always intervenes, in the form of dental bills, new home expenses, or a lack of work as a TV writer. At the time that the book was published (1970), she had not made it there yet.
I consumed this little volume—its brevity is my chief complaint!—in unabridged audio format. Many thanks to Erica Friedman who recommended this particular edition. What’s so lovely about it is that each letter writer has their own narrator. Helene is given voice by the talented Barbara Rosenblat and Frank by John Franklyn-Robbins, with many other notable Recorded Books regulars making an appearance. It’s lovely to hear the increasing affection in each voice and it makes one particularly amusing part—during which Frank is dismayed that a “thank you” letter for the latest package hasn’t been sent to Helene when in fact several people from the shop have surreptitiously written to her already—work even better than it would in written format.
For a period of correspondence spanning twenty years, 84, Charing Cross Road does seem to go by awfully fast. But if you’re looking for a cozy read one afternoon—or a cozy listen while you toil away at some harried task—then I definitely recommend it.