Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century.
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 a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with 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. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms.
Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer. Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves. – Goodreads
The context of this book made me by turns swoony and incredibly jealous. It’s the story of a young woman who, after finding herself somewhat lost after graduating from college, takes a job working for a literary agent – the literary agent of J.D. Salinger, no less. She somehow managed to stumble into a job and a world that most of us bookish folk would kill for. She gets to read Salinger’s fan mail, take home not-yet-published manuscripts and immerse herself in a literary world few of us have ever even caught a glimpse of. One that no longer exists.
I related strongly when she described reading Judy Blume’s new manuscript, or her nerves upon answering the phone to talk to “Jerry” Salinger. That she seemed so dissatisfied with this experience is both realistic (being on the bottom rung in any workplace involves tedious hours spent on administrative drudgery) and disappointing – I wanted to wallow in a rose-tinted version of employment in any book-related field.
I also struggled to feel a connection to the characters. The narrator felt by turns stiff, naive and passive. And I had a really difficult time with her relationship with her boyfriend. She lacked backbone, and though she kept showing us that he wasn’t a nice bloke, she time and time again let him talk her into doing things that she wasn’t comfortable with or letting him get away with disrespectful (sometimes flat out douchey) behaviour without so much as confronting him. I have very little patience with that sort of thing, and I’ve been spoiled by YA books where wrongs are righted and the nasties are taught a lesson. I didn’t really feel like I got the satisfaction of seeing him put in his place, so I was left with a lingering (and, okay, slightly vengeful) desire to see him smooshed like a bug.
I wanted more both for and from her, and though we see her come out of her shell as the book continues to begin asserting herself at work and stretching her wings as a writer in her own right, by the end of the book I still felt somewhat disgruntled.
Overall I enjoyed the writing and found Joanna’s coming-of-age tale to be both realistic and raw. At times awkward and painful, it echoed those first hesitant, stumbling steps we all must take into adulthood. But it also (perhaps because of this) left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable as I read. This wasn’t an era of my own life I much care to dwell on (mistakes made, heartbreaks endured, and a general lack of direction and maturity – not to mention the poverty of one’s early adult years) and therefore wasn’t one I necessarily enjoyed living vicariously. That said, Rakoff’s writing style was easy to be drawn in by and she gave me enough bookish voyeuristic thrills to keep me turning pages right to the end.
If you’re a fan of understated and introspective writing – and, of course, a total book geek – you’ll enjoy tiptoeing through the hallowed offices of Salinger’s agency, admiring bookshelves packed with first editions and peeking over shoulders at unpublished manuscripts with Rakoff.
Author: Joanna Rakoff
Published By: Knopf
Released: June 3, 2014
Genre: Memoir, Personal, Literary
Date Read: September 11-20, 2014