Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Love Books About Book Lovers

Delving even further into minor English classics of the mid-twentieth century, 84 Charing Cross Road was another long standing item on my BTRL (Books to Read List, naturellement :)) Again, don't know where I first heard it mentioned, but when I found out it was a non-fiction epistolary style memoir, and that the two people don't even meet in the end (spoiler? sorry :)) I was less than eager to put it at the top.  But I've heard it praised a few times, so I put it on hold.  I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a teeny-weeny 100 page or so paperback, and even more pleasantly surprised when I picked it up on the plane to Mountain View a month ago.  I was kind of reading it to put myself to sleep but I found myself caught up in the writing almost immediately.  Since it was really interrupted reading (in middle of Mark Twain), I didn't pick it up again until a while later, two Shabbosim ago when I was home in Queens.

To begin with, there was definitely an overdeveloped sense of anticipation, since I had found the book so unexpectedly enjoyable.  It was to be expected then, that there would be a sense of not living up to expectations.  I guess that manifested itself in my reaction to the writer, Helen Hanff's, breezy sense of humor.  It's cute and funny, but... maybe a little too blithe? I'm not really complaining, the truth is, how can you complain about a real person? This wasn't someone writing an epistolary novel, this was actual letters from an American... well I suppose spinster would be the easiest way to describe a single woman in the 50's, but she not very spinsterish at all.  She's a writer for television, one with definite intellectual tastes, but one who seems to take life very much in stride and live to enjoy.  On the other hand, there's her correspondent, FPD (can't remember his full name right now) who comes off as English to the core - always polite, very friendly and helpful, but neat and reserved too (yes, we get all that from his letters :)) If it was fiction, it would be the most cliche'd fiction you could find, only redeemable by the couple getting together in the end, but of course :)

But it's not fiction.  FPD is married, and (sadly enough, spoiler alert) dies before Helen can get to England to meet him and his family.  And nothing much happens to Helen either in the twenty years they correspond (unless it does happen and she doesn't tell him of course :)) It seems like there are some letters left out, so there was definitely some effort and grouping the remaining ones into a narrative.  In the end, I suppose it's a pretty sad narrative, not much of a resolution beyond the publication of the letters - but it doesn't feel sad.  Helen and Frank seem to thoroughly enjoy each other, transatlantic though their relationship might be. And I enjoyed them too, I always enjoy people who love books :) Though wow, these books, I have never heard of *any* of them! Except Pride and Prejudice - yes, Helen loves P&P.  And now you know why I love the book :) Okay not really, but I always love it the way everyone loves Jane Austen - Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm) waxed enthusiastic at one point as well.  In any case, it's surprising how close you can feel to someone after reading their personal letters all about the books they love :) Or at least how much you can enjoy a light, fluffy, collection of them.

Verdict: 4/5

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