Letter From New York – Helene Hanff

Letter from New York

Any of us who love books about books have surely read the lovely 84, Charing Cross Road, a collection of letters between American Helene Hanff and a London bookseller. Her other books aren’t as well-known, but I heartily recommend Q’s Legacy if you’d like to read more about the success of 84CCR – and now I can also recommend Letter From New York (1992). I took it to America to read there, and… read it in Worcestershire instead.

These letters were broadcast monthly on Radio 4 back between 1978-1984 (and nothing shrieks ’80s more than Hanff’s unstinting belief that formalwear necessitates a black velvet pantsuit and white satin blouse). They are, indeed, not letters so much as thoughts, and concern life in New York – but, more precisely, life in Hanff’s apartment block.

It reminded me a little of one of my all-time faves, The L-Shaped Room (if you’ve not read it – go and do so. I’ll wait.) in that I sort of fell in love with a building and its inhabitants. Not as much as I did with The L-Shaped Room (have you read it yet? I mean, you didn’t just glide past my previous parentheses did you? DID YOU?) because that will never happen, but Hanff is great at writing enough about her friends and neighbours to make you feel like you know them well. If she described them completely, she would seem (and make the reader feel) like an observer; by referring to them as though we already know them pretty well, Arlene, Richard, Nina, and the rest became friends. Here’s an excerpt…

Big excitement here a couple of weeks ago because the New York Times ran a story about Arlene, with a photograph of her that also included Richard.

Since you know that Arlene and I are opposites, when I tell you that I detest large cocktail parties and dinner dance,s you won’t be surprised to learnt hat Arlene earns her living organizing large cocktail parties and dinner dances. She runs the parties as fund-raising events for Democratic politicians who need money for their election campaigns. Her most famous fund-raiser was a birthday party for the Mayor of New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth II – ‘the QE Two’ to Arlene [Simon adds: …and to everyone else]. She phoned the office of the ship’s public relations chief, who was ‘at sea’ off the Bermuda coast and talked to her via ship-to-shore phone, and Arlene talked him into letting her use the ship for the Mayor’s birthday party. She hypnotized the chef into creating a replica of New York’s City Hall in margarine and a birthday cake bigger than the undersized Mayor.

As you see, Hanff deals not solely (or even much) with the grand moments in New York life – rather, we get the refreshing minutiae of her own life. That might be her neighbour’s dog being borrowed to perform as a greeter at an apartment party; it might be watching a bee in a roof garden; it might be a ticker-tape parade. All of it flows from Hanff’s pen lazily and contentedly; the tone you may remember from 84, Charing Cross Road, albeit mellowed a bit.

Hanff’s writing has three faults, in my mind. Only one of them really counts as a fault: the other two are that she prefers dogs to cats (there is a lot about dogs in Letter From New York) and that she prefers the city to the countryside. Those factors made it trickier for me to connect with her, but the only real ‘fault’ I noticed was that she has trouble with section endings. Each letter has a pat ending, a quip or neat sentence, that often felt a bit forced, or looped back to something she’d only mentioned for the first time a paragraph or two earlier. It’s a small thing, and it didn’t really affect my reading, but it brought about the only instances of Hanff’s writing feeling unnatural in a book that is largely characterised by being natural.

If you’ve enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road, then Hanff will feel like a friend whom you should revisit. If you haven’t – good grief, go and get a copy! (And read The L-Shaped Room while you’re at it.)

 

16 thoughts on “Letter From New York – Helene Hanff

  • May 21, 2015 at 9:27 am
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    I loved 84 and have this lurking on Mount TBR – perhaps half term next week would be a good time to read it (or maybe I should track down The L Shaped Room, since you recommend it so highly!) :)

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:19 pm
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      Oh, Karen, you must! Every now and then I remember what a glorious book The L-Shaped Room is, and want to press it on more people.

  • May 21, 2015 at 10:02 am
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    My mom loved Helene Hanff so her books were childhood reading for me (including Q’s Legacy and Apple of My Eye, her guide to New York City, as well as 84 CCR). They forever shaped my picture of NYC and of the wonderful world of literature, for which I am grateful.

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:20 pm
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      What lovely childhood reading! I have Apple of My Eye and Underfoot in Showbusiness unread on my shelf, and then I think I may have read everything by her.

  • May 21, 2015 at 4:56 pm
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    I really enjoyed Letter from New York when I read it at the beginning of this year. I didn’t find those little quips particularly irritating and assumed they were typical of those short thought of the day kind of radio broadcasts which are similar to what HH had been delivering.

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:21 pm
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      I remember you reading it, Ali – it pushed it up my tbr pile. And I’m glad the quips didn’t annoy you – I think you’re right that I’d have found them less annoying on the radio.

  • May 22, 2015 at 7:42 am
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    Simon, I would never ignore anything you write in (or out of) parentheses! However, I wish wouldn’t encourage more book buying on my part! I love 84 Charing Cross Road, but I’ve never read any of Hanff’s other work, so that situation has to be remedied. And I think The L -Shaped Room is probably up in the attic, which means I must spend a morning stumbling around the stacks of Books Read Long Ago. And if I can’t find it I shall have to purchase another copy.

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:21 pm
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      Aww, that’s nice, Christine! I can’t promise to stop encouraging you to buy books, I’m afraid – but I’m sure copies of The L-Shaped Room will be pretty cheap :)

  • May 22, 2015 at 9:36 am
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    I enjoyed reading this in the omnibus I have, although it’s been a while since I’ve read that. And The L-Shaped Room. How I love that book – and the TWO SEQUELS …

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:23 pm
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      Oh, yes, the sequels! I did enjoy them, but I really missed the building and the room once they were no longer the setting. I was so surprised by how much I missed the building, actually, even though the characters all reappeared.

  • May 22, 2015 at 4:48 pm
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    I have not read any thing from this author. But, after reading your review I would like to pick something from her. I have marked ’84, Charing Cross Road’ as ‘Want To Read’ on Goodreads after reading your review. So, since its now on my TBR I would definitely read it sometime soon. I love to read books about books. And this is one of those kinds so I should enjoy it :)

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:23 pm
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      84 CCR is definitely the best place to start with her, I think, Nita. I do hope you enjoy it!

  • May 24, 2015 at 10:28 pm
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    IMPORTANT QUESTION: Is it more urgent for me to read The L-Shaped Room or Barbara Comyns? Because I have been wanting to read The L-Shaped Room for looooonger, and yet I keep forgetting about it?

    • May 24, 2015 at 10:42 pm
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      OHMYGOSH. #sophieschoice. I keep making my decision in my head, and then reverting to the other one. I feel more certain that you will wholeheartedly adore Comyns, but I also can’t imagine you not loving L-Shaped Room. Ok, you have two eyes – one for each, at the same time? This is how vision works, yes?

  • May 25, 2015 at 8:32 pm
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    The fact that Hanff prefers dogs to cats makes me love her even more (cats are not my friends). I came to 84, Charing Cross Road really recently and it made me so happy – now you’ve introduced me to more ways I can read her letters. This makes me very happy.

    • May 26, 2015 at 12:38 am
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      Hurrah! You’ll love this, I think, Alice – and Q’s Legacy. And I guess dogs are *ok*… ;)

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