Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review 2011 #10 - Helene Hanff's Q's Legacy

Q's Legacy by Helene Hanff
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1985
Format: Paperback, 177 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy
Helene Hanff holds a special place in the heart of book lovers for her love affair with the Marks and Co bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road which she chronicled in the book of the same name. That slim volume is possibly one of the most popular books about books ever written. So popular there was even a movie adaptation with Anthony Hopkins. You bring Anthony Hopkins in and you know it will be a classic. In the book she passingly mentions getting her education through a man she nicknames "Q." Q is known to others as the Cambridge professor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and doesn't have anything to do with James Bond. I wondered a bit about how a poor girl from Philly was educated by this elusive Q. Well, lucky for us 84, Charing Cross Road was only one of a few autobiographies Helene wrote. Q's Legacy starts with that first day she realized that she couldn't afford college anymore and found his books on a shelf at the public library. She instantly found a kinship with this man an ocean away and knew that he would teach her all she ever wanted to learn. Through him she became a writer, after a failed attempt at acting and play writing.

Helene was always living hand to mouth, writing whatever she could to make a buck. When 84, Charing Cross Road unexpectedly became a huge hit she didn't know what to do with herself. She wasn't such a celebrity that she couldn't answer her own fan mail, but still, it opened doors she never thought would open. While she doesn't repeat herself with ground covered in 84, Charing Cross Road or her triumphant trip to London as a result of the book which she documented in the sublime sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, she adds so many more stories that where possible because of her book. Helene talks about the joy of going to England to see her book become a movie for the BBC and how she got to go to television center and watch her life come alive. She also recounts her trip to England for the opening of the stage adaptation that was a hit in England and a bomb in America. But it's not just the trips, it's the characters that people her life, the way she sees the world. Every time she said that she had a book that she hated writing so badly and chucked it down the incinerator my heart skipped a beat. If only the world had more of her books not less! She was too harsh a critique and because of that we are left with only a few slim volumes of a writer who has the most distinct and original voice I've ever read. So go out a buy this book before it becomes out of print, like so many of her wonderful books ironically are.

I'll leave off with recounting an interesting story of how I found out our lives intersect. On August 13th, 1978, she finally got to pay her regards to Q. She was invited by the widow of his biographer to come to Cambridge while she was there for the opening of the play and to visit Q's study. It was still as it always had been, preserved in memoriam. This was the day where she walked where her mentor walked. The whole book, perhaps her whole life had been building to afternoon tea in Q's study. Half a world away I was born. I say that makes August the 13th 1978 a rather significant date for the two of us.

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