An affectionate, richly allusive tribute to the city the author first encountered in books as a child and finally visited in person in her early 40s.
Part of a series that links noted writers with their favorite cities, these are personal observations and reminiscences rather than comprehensive travel guide. Like many readers of Dickens, columnist/novelist Quindlen (Loud and Clear, p. 121, etc.) expected London to be foggy and squalid and was surprised by the quite different contemporary reality: gentrified row-houses face tended squares; notorious Southwark, once the site of the debtors’ prison where the Dickens family was incarcerated, is the site of the Tate Modern; and daylight formerly blackened by coal fires now charms with its “silver-gilt quality.” No literary snob, the author seeks out the houses in which Galsworthy’s Forsytes were supposed to reside as enthusiastically as she looks for the places Dickens immortalized, and though she makes frequent allusions to literary figures like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, whose books are set in London, she doesn’t neglect such popular authors as P.D. James and Elizabeth George, whose mysteries often take place there. Quindlen pays the obligatory but disappointing pilgrimage to Sherlock Holmes’s block of Baker Street, where an anonymous office building now stands; she muses on the differences between American and British English; and she highlights the changes wrought by immigrants to the city as she notes the ethnic isolation of the characters in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, to whom historical London is a foreign country. She recalls the adolescent pleasure of reading the then-shocking Forever Amber as well as Georgette Heyer’s popular novels of debauched Regency bucks and penniless beauties. Quindlen is an unabashed Anglophile, entranced as much by London’s literature as its history; she mentions for example that the German bombardment during WWII destroyed Paternoster Row, the home of numerous British publishing houses.
Not definitive, but enjoyable for the author’s evocative response to a great city.