8.24.2014

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | Q'S LEGACY - HELENE HANFF


Here is the remarkable story of how Helene Hanff came to write 84, Charing Cross Road, and of all the things its success has brought her. Hanff recalls her serendipitous discovery of a volume of lectures by a Cambridge don, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. She devoured Q’s book, and, wanting to read all the books he recommended, began to order them from a small store in London, at 84, Charing Cross Road. Thus began a correspondence that became an enormously popular book, play, and television production, and that finally led to the trip to England – and a visit to Q’s study – that she recounts here. In this exuberant memoir, Hanff pays her dept to her mentor and shares her joyous adventures with her many fans. - Goodreads

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If I wasn't already a devoted fan of Helene Hanff based on her famous collection of letters-turned-movie, 84, Charing Cross Road, I would be now.

This is, more or less, the story of Hanff's life. It begins with her self-education in the craft of writing - and the genesis of her love for the written words of others. This education was had at the hands of one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (yes, "Q"), a Cambridge don whose lectures she discovered at the library. Rather than go to college, she learned all she needed under Q's tutelage, which led indirectly to the salient turns in her life - and, eventually, to 84. But let's start at the beginning.

After discovering "Q" at the library, Helene goes in search of both Q's work and the books he discussed but discovers that they're nearly impossible to find at affordable prices in her native New York. Luckily, while perusing a magazine one day, Hanff stumbled across an ad for Marks & Co, a British book store located at who specialized in out of print and "antiquarian" books. Though somewhat nervous that "antiquarian" would mean expensive, she took a chance and sent along a letter to the store located at 84, Charing Cross Road in London asking if they had any editions of the books she wanted at prices she could afford.

They did.

Thus began a decades-long correspondence between Hanff, Frank Doel (who handled nearly all her requests) and, eventually, all the other employees of the store and several family members. Hanff's sense of humour (not to mention her generous Danish packages of meat, eggs and other items that were impossible to find during war rationing) won over all the staff and she found herself the fast friend of a whole troupe of store employees and their families - none of whom she had ever laid eyes on.

An impoverished writer, Hanff struggled to make ends meet through most of her life. It wasn't until the publication of a slim volume of letters by the name of 84, Charing Cross Road that Helene saw any measure of success - but much to her surprise, the book proved to be beloved by many. Though it didn't make her fiscally secure, it did provide her with something she valued just as highly - fans who became friends.

In Q's Legacy we get the back story, the context and find out exactly where 84 took Helene's life. The sense of her we get from reading her letters is but an inkling of the story she unfolds here, and because of that I enjoyed reading Q even more than I expected. Helene is such a kindred spirit, and I'm sure that were she still alive, I'd try to take her out for lunch if I ever visited New York. (She regularly accepted meetings and outings with perfect strangers who sent her fan mail - which would certainly have emboldened me to try, anyway!)

If you're a fan of 84, of books about those who love reading, or just looking for a pleasant read to fill a rainy afternoon, introduce yourself to Helene. She'd love to share her story with you.

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Book Title: Q's Legacy
Author: Helene Hanff
Series: No
Edition: Paperback
Published By: Penguin
Released: August 5, 1986 (this edition)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Humour, Books
Pages: 192
Date Read: July 18-20, 2014
Rating: 10/10

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