This afternoon it was hot as blazes out and the kids wanted to go to the park. So first, we stopped at the library, and I picked up this slim, little volume. I read the entire thing while they ran around, and am now thinking about heading back to the library so I can get my hands on Hanff’s “sequel,” The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.
Helene Hanff tells a simple story through letters that she exchanged with a Frank Doel, a book dealer in London. She writes to him asking for specific books in good condition, he writes back and lets her know the price. As they get to know each other a bit, their letters become more and more familiar. She jokes with him, he slowly begins to reciprocate.
In time, Helene becomes somewhat entangled — from thousands of miles away — into the lives of most of the employees of the book shop and their families and friends. She exchanges letters with not only Frank, but his wife, his colleagues, his neighbor, and eventually, his daughters.
She sends hams, eggs, chocolates, and nylons to the shop — all things that were still being rationed after World War II. The shop sends her gifts, as well.
Sadly, Helene never makes the trip over to visit the shop. She and Frank (and everyone else) talk about it for years, but it just never happens. Something else always comes up.
You might wonder just how a tiny little book of letters can be so engrossing. Just trust me. By the end, you’ll feel as if you’ve known these people for all of their lives, and a little bit of your heart will break.
As a side note, the edition that I read had a forward written by Anne Bancroft, who starred as Helene in the movie (which I’ve never seen, but now have to add to the list). She talks about how a stranger gave her the book, how she loved it and it changed her life, and how — in a completely romantic gesture — her husband bought her the film rights as an anniversary gift. Lovely.