As a lover of books and an anglophile, I was immediately drawn to this book when I first came across it while browsing Book Depository. I ordered it, waited weeks for it to arrive, and then shelved it where it sat forgotten for about a year. The other day I was rummaging through my shelves trying to find something I “put in a safe place”, and met 84 Charing Cross Road again. It’s a teeny little thing so it’s no wonder that it go lost on a bottom shelf. Whoops.
The edition I have is actually two books in one. It includes 84 Charing Cross Road and the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. The first is a collection of letters between the author, Helene Hanff of New York City, and a small bookstore in London called Marks & Co. Her correspondence begins when she is in search of a specific book and grows from there. The sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is in diary format and chronicles Helene’s experience when she finally makes it to London to visit. I honestly didn’t realize that I was getting two books in one when I purchased, I just liked this cover best (one of my favorite parts about ordering from Book Depository is all the lovely covers we don’t get here in The States)!
84 Charing Cross Road
It seems only fair that since this book is actually two books, that I try to split up my review somewhat to differentiate. 84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters, which makes it a really lovely, easy read. The letters are post World War II which just makes the letters more interesting to read. For example, there are rations in London and certain goods are harder to find than others. Through the relationship that develops between Helene and the workers at Marks and Co., she sends them care packages containing items we might take for granted in our modern world, or even scoff at. The appreciation of such simple gestures really stood out to me. Actually, reading through this book, there is a theme of simplicity and I think that 84 Charing Cross Road has the capability to force readers to slow down and enjoy themselves, beyond the mere pleasure of reading this book.
Through her letters, Helene corresponds with Frank who runs the shop, as well as many other workers. As a serious reader she is frequently in search of specific versions of her beloved books, convinced that she couldn’t possibly find them in New York. It’s hard to think that any bibliophile would not enjoy this book. Intimate correspondence with a London bookshop that personally finds the books on your wish list and then sends them to you? Uh, sign me up please!
I would give 84 Charing Cross Road five full stars. It really is an excellent read, and it’s also a light read – a great book to read after say, making your way through a series of books where many are more than 600 pages… This book hits so many marks for me that I actually can’t think of a negative thing to say (without spoiling it, that is).
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
The sequel is a diary of Helene’s experience when she finally makes it to London to visit. As someone who has never been but would lose her mind at the opportunity to do so, I assumed that I would love this book just as much. However I have to say that I did not. It has a unique style, since it is a diary of her time in London and reads very casually, making it easier to page through than some memoirs can be (I find that it’s easy for memoirs to become repetitive). Although, I still found myself not enjoying it as much. It was very choppy in my view, and I even felt bored by her excerpts at points.
I’d give the sequel 3 out of five stars. I don’t hate it by any means (it’d be hard to go that far with it), but I just didn’t love it like I liked the letters. Perhaps it’s because the letters offer multiple perspectives, whereas the diary entries only give us her trip from Helene’s experience. Many of the people in this book had waited years to meet this woman they had only spoken with through letters, it would have been interesting to hear their point of view during her visit as well!
I almost feel bad giving this book such a poor review – but I don’t think it should deter anyone from reading it!! 84 Charing Cross Road is worth it on its own!! Seriously, if you are an anglophile, a lover of books, or of history, I strongly encourage you to pick this one up. It’s an oldie, but no less a goodie!