My Salinger Year Synopsis:
At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in the plush, wood-panelled agency, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches, and at night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Brooklyn apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities and struggling to trust her own artistic sense, Joanna is given the task of answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back…
Poignant, keenly observed and irresistibly funny, My Salinger Year is a memoir about literary New York in the late 1990s, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself swept into one of the last great stories and entangled with one of the last great figures of the century. Above all, it is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer and a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives. (Bloomsbury)
Do you remember what you were doing in 1996? I do, quite vividly. That this fictionalised memoir is set in such recent times is just one of its many attractions.
Much has been said about Joanna Rakoff’s decision to publish this novel featuring the reclusive writer Jerome D Salinger, let alone including his name in its title, and the impact that will have on sales.
Yes, there is a certain appeal to reading a fictionalised memoir, about finding out that little bit more about the real people behind the big names. Why is that? Perhaps it feeds that flaw in our human psyche, the one that means we find comfort in knowing others are less than perfect, that assuages our self-critic in respect to our own weaknesses and failings…
And yes, the ‘My Salinger Year‘ title will indeed boost sales, with industry gossip about authors of his vintage the carrot, but this novel offers infinitely more depth than that. I can say that with some authority because… here’s the big secret… I have never read anything by Salinger nor many of the other authors named. While I appreciate American readers may consider this fact odd for a booklover like myself, it’s really not that strange having grown up in Australia with quite a different reading curriculum.
Several of the humorous elements of the My Salinger Year plot such as the experience of starting a new job at the Agency and the larger than life characters that populated it, reminded me of The Devil Wears Prada, a story I found immensely entertaining.
Taking off her glasses, she rubbed the inside corners of her eyes with one slender thumb and forefinger. Until that moment, I’d never seen her without her glasses. She looked at least ten years younger, her pale eyes twice as large when not dwarfed by the massive frames. They were green, I saw now, not blue. I’d thought her my mother’s age – sixty-five or so – but now I wondered if she was wasn’t younger, perhaps even much younger, got up in the garb of the elderly: the orthopedic shoes, the caftans, the dinner rings. Was this all some sort of costume? To what end?
… For my boss, the Agency was not just a business, it was a way of life, a culture, a community a home. It had more in common with an Ivy League secret society or – though it would take me time to see the extent of this – a religion, with its practices defined and its gods to worship…
But, as you can see from this excerpt, while beginning with caricatures, in My Salinger Year Rakoff goes on to delve much deeper into the psyche of her characters. Also, I found the extent to which she interrogates her own motivations and lays bare decisions in her personal life quite inspiring. It is the passages towards the end of the novel in which she transitions from recounting events and decisions to exploring and questioning their deeper meaning where Rakoff’s poetic voice comes to the fore.
The rawness and honesty of Joanna Rakoff’s narrative voice makes My Salinger Year an engaging and moving read. Through the older characters and publications featured in the novel, she taps into the nostalgia of all generations for simpler times gone by.
And yes, reading My Salinger Year has sparked my interest in reading J D Salinger’s work. Which title would you recommend?
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5 ; Overall 4.25
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Genre: Drama, Romance, Memoir, Literature
Author Information: Joanna Rakoff is a poet and the author of the novel A Fortunate Age, which won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers, was a New York Times Editors’ Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers’ Prize and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Time Out, O:The Oprah Magazine. The BBC produced a radio documentary following her as she tracked down the writer of her favourite Salinger fan letter. She has degrees from Columbia University, University College, London and Oberlin College. Joanna Rakoff lives in Boston.
* My receiving a paperback copy of this title from Bloomsbury for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.