In a search for rare books, writer Helene Hanff pens a letter to Marks & Co. booksellers in London, hoping that they’ll have what she so desires. Her initial letter sparks two decades of communication between her and the employees of the bookstore, particularly Frank Doel, who answers that letter and becomes a dear penpal to her. In The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff finally makes a trip to London to promote the newly published 84 Charing Cross Road, visiting all the sights which had become familiar to her through the letters and through films.
It was almost inevitable that this book would let me down. My expectations were so, so high, given that this is a book for book lovers and countless people assured me that if I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I would love this too. And I did, but not as much, which was in itself disappointing. Yes, it is a totally charming and endearing story. I loved when Hanff grew so fond of the London employees that she sent them packages of hard-to-get items just after World War II when everything was still rationed. The time period felt real to me through these people that had lived through it. And of course this is certainly a book for book lovers, as Hanff’s passion for them especially shines through and definitely makes me feel like I should be reading all the books she’d read.
Unfortunately, though, I found Hanff slightly abrasive. She had a strange habit of suddenly writing in lower case, which I just didn’t understand, and she seemed to me very much like a loud American stereotype, particularly in comparison to the more somber British writers. I think I would have preferred more letters, too. There were gaps of years between some of the letters, and clearly there had been some correspondence over those years because they’d reply to one another. I kept feeling like I was missing something, and the book was so short that more letters could have been included easily.
I feel like there’s something wrong with me because I didn’t love this as much as everyone else does. All those five star reviews, everyone saying that book lovers can’t not love this book – well, clearly I should have waited and let my expectations die down a bit! There’s also the fact that the ending was spoiled for me by the back cover, which I almost never read but in this case did. That certainly hurt the book as it robbed me of the true emotional impact it could have had.
It was with a little bit of surprise that I then found myself loving the second book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. I’d hardly heard of this one, as everyone focuses on the first. But here, Hanff actually travels to London, even though she’s just had a hysterectomy and is in considerable pain. Watching her discover London – and England – was like doing it for myself all over again. And if you don’t think I got as excited and moved as she did, just ask my husband, who was there (and confused by me) for most of it!
Is it strange that I related far more to her passion for British history than I did to her passion for books? Because I certainly did. She’s a very different reader than me, and I’m sure that has something to do with it. In any case, there is something magical about a place you’ve read about in history books coming to life, and I could palpably feel her excitement. I know what it’s like to walk along paths I’d previously only dreamed of walking on, places where history that I love happened, where writers that I love wrote, where generations of other people have sat and dreamed and thought and changed the world. It’s awe-inspiring, and that’s what I loved about this book. I can still remember that thrilling first vision of green that was England from my plane window and there Hanff and I turned out to have quite a bit in common after all. And I found her visit to Marks & Co extremely moving – it closes down by the time she finally gets to see it – and her visits with her correspondents were touching and sweet. I liked her a lot better in this second book and I wonder now if I should reread the first with this new perspective.
Both of these books are worth your time. Don’t let expectations get to you and take it as it comes – and DON’T read the back cover!
I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased these books.