Review: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Book cover of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I can’t believe that I’ve never reviewed this before. I’ve read 84 Charing Cross Road three times since 2010 and I swear it never gets old. It’s one of my all-time favourite books and it’s so lovely and charming that it just can’t fail to make you feel all squishy.

Plot summary: It all began with a
letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New
York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. As
Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and
proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms
into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.

It’s a very simple premise – an American reader exchanges letters with an English bookseller over the course of about twenty years. But it’s oh so much more! Helene’s quite outgoing and gently teases Frank, which he doesn’t seem to know how to take at first. He takes longer to come out of his shell – quite reserved at first, eventually he’s responding to Helene with little bits of chitchat and friendly asides himself. Their relationship is so subtle and so gradual and so lovely (I feel I may be in danger of over-using this word, but it sums up the book so well).

Did I tell you I finally found the perfect page-cutter? It’s a
pearl-handled fruit knife. My mother left me a dozen of them, I keep one
in the pencil cup on my desk. Maybe I go with the wrong kind of people
but i’m just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around
simultaneously eating fruit.

It’s so lovely (see?). It makes it all the better that it’s real. You know, this is the first time I ever considered that maybe it is actually purely fictional but then I decided that it couldn’t be (and it would pretty much break my world if it was). I just think it’s too… messy to be made up. Book relationships (even platonic ones) aren’t this subtle. In addition, certain letters are missing, which you can tell when they refer to something mentioned in a previous letter… which you haven’t read. Perhaps those letters were lost or not included due to the wishes of the family, but I just don’t see why a fictional novel would bother to do that.

I have looked it up since – it’s a true story *goes back to snuggling her book.*

I never realised just how long their correspondance lasted before – they exchanged letters on-and-off for more than twenty years. It seems so alien now, in a world where you can have a reply to an e-mail an hour after you sent it or just log onto Facebook and chat for four hours a night. Twenty years. No wonder it feels so special.

I have these guilts about never having read Chaucer but I was talked
out of learning Early Anglo-Saxon / Middle English by a friend who had
to take it for her Ph.D. They told her to write an essay in Early
Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very
well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find
enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men
in a Mead Hall’.

84 Charing Cross Road is my ultimate comfort book. Without sounding too dramatic, this book just feels like it’s part of me – it’s who I am. It’s short but so lovely, and it restores my faith in humanity somewhat. The very existence of this book makes me want to cry – it’s just nice, through and through.

Read Ellie’s review of 84 Charing Cross Road at Book Addicted Blonde.   


  1. Annette says:

    I've not read the book, but a friend sent me the DVD movie recently and I watched it. Great movie with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

    1. admin says:

      I keep forgetting that it's a film… I've only heard good things about it, but I just can't imagine how they manage to get the tone of the letters across!

    2. Ellie says:

      I wondered that too – but somehow they DO. Frank dictates bits to one of the girls in the shop, Helene's are spoken over her day-to-day chaotic life, sometimes they're spoken directly to camera… It works, somehow. It's not quite as charming as the book, but it's a lovely Sunday-afternoon happy kind of movie. 🙂

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  4. NinaMeyers says:

    Finding a good book for me is always harder than finding one hour translation, for example. But I think this one really can compete with all the good ones. Thank you for sharing.

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