84, Charing Cross Road is an epistolary correspondence of nearly two decades between Helene Hanff and the employees of Marks & Co., in particular Frank Doel. The books begins with Helen Hanff (HH) contacting Marks & Co. with a request for some arcane literature. The request is answered with a formal letter and the relevant books by Frank Doel, as a representative of the book company. But Helene quickly slips into a more informal tone, rambling on the aesthetic appeal of the book, and ending with the puzzling postscript, "I hope "madam" doesn't mean over there what it does here.". When she figures out that its the same representative, viz Frank, answering all her letters to Marks & Co., she starts peppering her letters with humour ("M. de Tocqueville's compliments and he announces his safe arrival in America") and the kind of impudence, especially in salutations, that only a woman might get away with. In one correspondence, she opens by addressing Frank as 'SLOTH'! It made me wonder if a man might've been able to begin a letter to another man thus.
Helene succeeds in denting Frank's reserve not only with her deliberate impudence but also by showering affection on him and the fellow inmates of the bookstore in the form of gifts on festive occasions, or simply as presents when UK was suffering from post-war rationing, especially of meat, linen and other such "luxuries". Naturally, this made the employees and Frank's family extremely fond of this strange foreign girl who kept sending them such expensive gifts for no obvious reason. There is something to be said for this kind of wanton kindness. It makes a lasting impression. I still remember this lady who gave us free syringes at a hospital for some injection that someone we knew had to be administered. We'd always paid for them, and I believe it was Rs. 10 a syringe. Yet for no obvious reason, this lady said, "Take it. There's plenty around anyway" (in telugu) and gave it to us. It left me dumbstruck at that time so I still remember the frail lady who did that. Then there is this mexican woman at the campus dining cafeteria, who always remembers my face and bills me $6, the breakfast rate, for the $8 lunch, if no one else is watching. The first time she did it, my eyes widened in disbelief and she quickly raised her finger to her lips as if to suggest 'hush!' and smiled quietly, making it clear it wasn't an accident. Thereafter, she did it whenever it was safe, and I still smile in incredible gratitude. Then there's the plastic flower roadside vendor in my neighbourhood, who one devilish monsoon day, when the rain suddenly crashed down from the skies, rushed to slip an umbrella out from under his plastic sheet not to protect the source of his livelihood, but to hold it up to my mom while she waited for dad to come pick her up. Then there's Izudina. She spent 30 minutes of unpaid overtime to guide me by hand through the purchase of my first suit, for my first interview, which eventually turned into my first job. And above all, there's a woman, a friend, who's forgiven me for imbecilic adolescent past behaviour that no woman might reasonably forgive. It must be the same inexplicable gratitude that I feel for these people that the employees of Marks and Co. must've felt for the large-hearted and generous HH. Out of that gratitude they invite HH to come over to England and stay with them, and HH promises a trip to England as soon as she's saved enough. As the book progresses, correspondences are omitted, possibly to avoid repetition, possibly because the letters have been lost, and before you know it, a decade has gone by with HH still having made no trip to England. Although, if letters were omitted to avoid repetition, I would like to express my delayed disapproval to the publishers, for how can the correspondences be dull when the woman is as funny as this: "Are you a grandfather yet?", she asks Frank. And then suggests that he tell his daughters, "their children are entitled to presentation copies of my Collected Juvenile Works, THAT should make them rush off and reproduce. "(Underline and block font in original) By now, Frank, Nora (Frank's wife), and their daughters, Sheila and Mary, are spatially removed family to Helene.
Age does not wither Helene's humour, which is often nothing more than the vexed desire for the end of the many people she might momentarily disapprove of. Such phrases as "All must die.", " Death the leveler.", "h.hfffffff.", and "FRANKIE, you'll die when I tell you." only make one smile. On one occasion, her mom leaves behind a dozen knives. She resourcefully uses one for her page cutting, and in the email to Frank says, "May be I go with the wrong kind of people but I'm just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around simultaneously eating fruit." I laughed at that.
Towards the end of the book, you come to love Frank as this simple yet knowledgeable and happy family man, whose proper British reserve Helene arduously breaks down with an endearing mix of impudence, good humour, and overwhelming affection over nearly two decades. So it left me sad to learn that he died without Helene and him ever meeting. As Nora jealously confesses in the end, perhaps Helene and Frank had more in common.
Finally, I wondered how these letters came to be compiled into a book. Was the same woman who confessed to being incapable of converting pounds to dollars a shrewd businesswoman at heart? Or were the letters simply meant to be a tribute to Frank and the employees of Marks & Co.? Whatever her motivation, I'm only happy to have been privy to their correspondence.
Addendum: The upcoming review will be either 'The rise of India' by Niranjan Rajadakshya or 'Reintegrating India with the World Economy' by T.N. Srinivasan and Suresh Tendulkar. I have an India trip lined up and I realised I know too little about my own country. I also hope to finish Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi before I set foot on home soil. Wish me luck folks!
post-Addendum: I just realised that the library copy was an abridged version of the book after buying myself a copy from abebooks.com. I will read the full version later. Till then, please consider this only an incomplete review.