My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

In brief: A memoir of Joanna’s first job – an assistant at The Agency, a literary agency that represents J.D. Salinger. This is her year of pedal-powered Dictaphones, typewriters and letters to Jerry.

The good: It has an other-worldly quality to it – a look into the past (both recent and not-so-recent).

The not-so-good: It took me a little time to get into – but by page 60, nothing could stop me.

Why I chose it: Thank you to Bloomsbury Sydney.

Year: 2014

Pages: 249 (ARC)

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

Setting: New York City

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Confession time: I’m not a big fan of J.D. Salinger’s works. I don’t really like Catcher in the Rye (though on reflection, perhaps I just read it at the wrong stage of life), so I was hoping this book wouldn’t be full of J.D. Salinger. I was captivated more by the blurb stating this memoir was like ‘The Devil Wears Prada with a whiff of Mad Men and Girls‘ – that’s much more up my street. Now I think it’s more Mad Men than the other two –the themes like loss, love (both wrong and right) and growing up are central to both works.

My Salinger Year is a memoir, but it’s told in a fashion that resembles a novel. There’s fully documented conversations (one of the things I miss when reading biographies) and a number of plot lines running through the narrative. Essentially, this is the story of Joanna’s year working for The Agency, an unnamed literary agency representing a number of authors, including Salinger (and formerly Judy Blume). The Agency (not its real name, but if you’re interested, you can work it out using Google) is something like Mad Men in 1990s New York – the décor is similar, the agents have tumblers full of vodka rather than water and the atmosphere is a fug of smoke. As her friends sit down at desktop computers, Joanna uses a pedal-powered Dictaphone, typewriter and index cards. She starts to dress in a 1960s fashion, at the despair of her boyfriend Don, who she left her steady college friend for. But the Agency is addictive, and after receiving a bucket load of letters to Salinger (who doesn’t want them passed on to him), she starts answering back. Not the usual form letter, but a proper answer. Why would a letter from Salinger be worthy of an A in English? Can Catcher help to ease the pain of the war years? I loved the juxtaposition between Joanna and her friend who complains that nobody wants to talk in her office, it’s all ‘send me an email’ with no printers on her floor. It’s an apt description of what life can be like in today’s offices.

This is a story of a young girl trying to find who she is after leaving the cosy world of academia. Is she destined to be a poet or a writer? Will she enjoy the thrill of the literary world as editors fight for the manuscript she discovered? It’s not just about work though, it’s about love. As I read more about Joanna’s relationship with Don, the more I just knew that he wasn’t right for her. When he presents her with his novel and Joanna can’t understand it (but one of the agents loves it), it’s symbolic of their relationship. They’ll never truly understand each other but it takes Joanna some time to accept this. The reactions to Joanna’s letters to Salinger fans definitely weren’t what I expected and it was also a great lesson for Joanna in that not everyone reacts in the same way. This quiet memoir grows on you as you read, until you are completely hooked by its charms. By the end, I didn’t want to leave. I was captivated by Joanna’s descriptions of the world around her, from the Agency to her apartment (with its dodgy heating), right down to the saltiness of the single olive of her salad. My Salinger Year perfectly captures that period of youth where you haven’t quite become ‘you’. Highly recommended if that’s where you are in life, or you want to reflect on how much you’ve grown since that time.

 

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8 thoughts on “My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

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  1. I have this one on Sparky…and really want to read it soon! I read one other memoir a few years ago by Joyce Maynard, in which she shared living with Salinger for a few years when she was very young. (At Home in the World).

    Thanks for the great review.

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