I actually stumbled across this book on someone’s wishlist for a book swap, and then immediately got sucked into reading the opening pages. It took me a while to pick up my own copy, but now I have… and it’s really, really sweet, and funny as well. It’s actually a collection of real letters between Helene Hanff, a writer in the US, and a London bookseller. Starting in 1949, she wrote regularly to the shop asking them for books she wanted, and they wrote back… and slowly a correspondence developed, as they found her beautiful copies of the books she wanted and she ordered them boxes of food and sent friends round to do them favours.
It’s hard to believe that these letters were real, sometimes — it’s just so sweet, and so much like something you’d see in a movie. But it did happen — and typically of reality, Helene didn’t get quite the happy ending one would want. Frank Doel, the man whom she corresponded with, died suddenly of appendicitis before she ever went to London. When she did go to London, the bookshop itself had gone.
The original letters close after the notification of Frank Doel’s death, but my copy had another book in it: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is Helene Hanff’s journal of her time in London just after the release of the first book. It’s lovely to read how she saw England and London, and the little character-sketches of everyone she met.