Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hanff vs. Potato Peels--KO!

I have never read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but it is composed of letters written between strangers, found via a love of books. The epistolary structure (see: letter writin') really appeals to me, but instead of finding out what the hell a Potato Peel Pie Society is I opted to read 84 Charring Cross Road, by the fiesty Helene Hanff.

Published in 1970, 84 is a collection of letters spanning about 20 years of correspondence between Helene and the charming Frank Doel, bookstore operator in London. (Actually, predating the publication of 84, the bookstore Marks & Co. has a famous past as the bookstore choice of Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw. Click on the link to visit Marks & Co.'s unofficial website, featuring history and character sketches for its employees, including a picture of Frank Doel)
Writing from her apartment in New York, Helene's voice is teasing and irreverent to Frank's professional, and typically
English, reserve. My favourite part is hearing Frank through the years take Helen's often outrageous book demands seriously, hunting down hard-to-find, clean (always clean!) copies. Mostly because he proves himself such a softie. He seems to keep Helene's letters and book requests to himself, even when she begins separate correspondence with the ladies who work with him, his own wife and his daughters.
84 is a wonderful little book, finished in an afternoon, with a powerful "ending". That much stronger because it is a work of non-fiction. Helene never made it to London, never met the people who were so real for her. And this tender, fragile quality comes through as you read.

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