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Q's Legacy

Q's Legacy - Helene Hanff This seems to be the least-loved of Hanff's books. Readers seem to expect another book full of dated entries, be they letters or diary entries.

I think Q rounds out her other books very well exactly because it's more conventional in structure. 84, Charing Cross Road is the book that makes readers fall in love with Hanff's voice. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street makes those fans cheer, because (spoiler alert!) she finally gets to go to England. And Q's Legacy is the closest Hanff comes to fulfilling her fans' natural curiosity about her life and background.

Hanff keeps her cards pretty close to her vest, even when she finally tells us a bit about herself. There's nothing about her parents or her childhood here – the book starts when she's 18 – and the closest she comes to any mention of romance is admitting that she "hankered after" one of her teachers at the business school she attended after graduating high school. As soon as her classmates learned of this crush,

they went to work devising ploys to get him for me. The best was Rita's. She got up in Business English class and suggested that after every Friday's English test, Mr. Smoter award a kiss to whoever got the best score. She made him stick to this award for the rest of the 90 days. Which was one reason why I had such a good time in that school I was almost sorry when the course ended.

Note that "almost." If you know anything about Helene Hanff, you'll know that business school and the sort of career future it promised were a horrible fit for her. Instead of going on to be a secretary, Hanff became an autodidact: reading at night and picking up work she could do at home by day. (She considered office work as bad as prison, if not worse.) She also began writing "bad plays." "They specialized in plotless charm," she explains, and that's probably accurate – because if it didn't sound so mean, one could say that's a perfect description of the writing that made Hanff famous.

And yet we love it. Maybe you can get away with a minimum of plot, if you're charming enough.

Q's Legacy begins long before the events of 84, and closes long after Duchess. It stretches into Hanff's old age, including a terrifyingly funny encounter with cataract surgery. (Hint: If an eye surgeon says you won't be able to read for a month after the operation, he doesn't mean that reading will give you a headache or tire you out. He means you won't be able to see printed letters. Or printed anything. Hanff learned this when she tried to take the elevator and "confronted a double row of buttons which no longer had floor numbers on them." Only Helene Hanff could make a month of this sort of blindness funny and fun to read about.)

If you're looking for a weekend of pleasure, get your hands on all three of her books and read them in order of publication. Then cuss me out for making you think you'd need a whole weekend to read these slim, joyful works. You will if you take frequent breaks to make tea and fresh scones, which you'll be in the mood for after reading so much about England.

(Let me know if you need a recipe for scones, btw. I've been told mine rival any you can get in England, possibly because the English don't understand the magic of miniature chocolate chips.)