June 13, 2016

Book Review: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

I read 84, Charing Cross Road years ago and was utterly charmed by Helene Hanff’s voice – frank, funny, down-to-earth except when she’s talking about books and then there’s a reverence and adoration there that echoed what I felt in my own bookwormy heart. She never did visit London until after Frank Doel died and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of that once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Another thing I like about Hanff’s writing is she’s not coming from a privileged place. Hanff’s very relatable perspective is one of a poor (less so because of 84’s success) booklover trying to stretch her pounds as far they can possibly go so that she can stay in London longer. Because of 84, Charing Cross Road s popularity, all her English fans bestow their warmth and generosity by squiring her all around London, thus the “duchess” in the title. Her awe and delight, so specific to a booklover suddenly seeing the London of her beloved books come to life, makes this a heartwarming read. 

A lovely bonus is that this book also gave me some welcome ideas on some lesser-known places to visit while in London.

“All my life I’ve wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at houses like those. Staring at the screen in a dark theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed on me like hunger. Sometimes, at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I’d put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.  I used to tell myself this was natural in a writer and booklover born to the language of Shakespeare.”

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