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.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Joanna Rakoff’s novel A Fortunate Age won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers and the Elle Readers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle best seller. She has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
How many times had I been told that Salinger would not call, would never call, that I would have no contact with him? More than I could count.
And yet one morning, a Friday, at the beginning of April, I picked up the phone and heard someone shouting at me. “HELLO? HELLO?” Then something incomprehensible. “HELLO? HELLO?” More gibberish. Slowly, as in a dream, the gibberish resolved into language. “It’s Jerry,” the caller was shouting. Oh my God, I thought. It’s him. I began, slightly, to quiver with fear, not because I was talking to—or being shouted at by—the actual J. D. Salinger, but because I so feared doing something wrong and incurring my boss’s wrath. My mind began to sift through all the Salinger-related instructions that had been imparted to me, but they had more to do with keeping others away from him, less to do with the man himself. There was no risk of my asking him to read my stories or gushing about The Catcher in the Rye. I still hadn’t read it. “WHO IS THIS?” he asked, though it took me a few tries to understand. “It’s Joanna,” I told him, nine or ten times, yelling at the top of my lungs by the final three. “I’m the new assistant.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne,” he said, finally, in something akin to a normal voice. “I’m calling to speak to your boss.” I had assumed as much. Why had Pam put him through to me, rather than taking a message? My boss was out for the day, it being Friday, her reading day.
I conveyed this to him, or hoped that I did. “I can call her at home and have her call you back today. Or she can give you a call when she gets in on Monday.”
“Monday is fine,” he said, his voice ratcheted down another notch. “Well, very nice to meet you, Suzanne. I hope we meet in person someday.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Have a great day.” This was not a phrase I ever used. Where had it come from?
“YOU, TOO!” Ah, the shouting.
I put the phone down and took a deep breath, as I’d learned to do in ballet. My entire body, I realized, was shaking. I stood up and stretched.
“Jerry?” asked Hugh, stepping out of his office with a mug of coffee.
“Yes!” I said. “Wow.”
“He’s deaf. His wife set up this special phone for him, with an amplified receiver, but he refuses to use it.” He sighed his trademark sigh. To be Hugh was to be let down by the world. “What did he want?”
“Just to talk to my boss.” I shrugged. “I offered to call her at home and have her call him back, but he said Monday was fine.”
Hugh wrinkled his face in thought. “Hmm, why don’t you call her anyway. I think she’d want to know.”
“Okay,” I said, thumbing through my Rolodex.
She wasn’t home and had no answering machine. She didn’t believe in them. Just as she didn’t believe in computers or voice mail, another newfangled invention not employed by the Agency. If you called during business hours, you reached Pam, the receptionist. If you called outside business hours, the phone just rang and rang, as it did at my boss’s apartment, twenty blocks north of the office. I tried again, every hour or so, until the end of the day, to no avail. It would have to be Monday.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s acclaimed memoir of literary New York in the late nineties.
1. In what ways does Joanna Rakoff’s position at the Agency seem typical of many young people’s first post-college jobs? Has it gotten harder or easier for young people to start a meaningful career since then?
2. How much did Rakoff’s experience at the Agency match what she had imagined ahead of time about the glamorous world of publishing? Was her disillusionment inevitable?
3. When the book begins, Rakoff has just left her college boyfriend, even though it’s clear she’s still in love with him. She says she doesn’t understand why she did this. Is there anything in her behavior or situation that might shed light on her motives?
4. Rakoff’s boyfriend, Don, is a rather unpleasant character. Why does she stay with him as long as she does? Is there something universal about her experience with Don?
5. Rakoff never names the firm for which she works—calling it “the Agency”—nor does she name her boss or her college boyfriend. Why do you think she made this choice? Does it matter that she’s concealed the names? Would the memoir have more impact if the names were revealed?
6. Midway through the book, Rakoff’s father presents her with a stack of bills, revealing that he had taken out student loans in her name without her knowledge, forging her signature on the applications. He tells her the payments are her responsibility now, even though he knows she doesn’t make enough to cover them. Was this a good way to encourage financial responsibility? Should she have protested her father’s actions more strongly?
7. Part of the book’s plot line revolves around Rakoff and her closest friend, Jenny, growing apart. Jenny has chosen a more conservative path in life; Rakoff, a more bohemian one. Is growing apart from one’s childhood friends a universal part of growing up?
8. When Rakoff is asked to read Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, she recalls the important role Blume’s children’s books had played in her life as a young book lover. By contrast, she had never read J. D. Salinger before. Do you think Blume has the same sort of significant place in many young women’s hearts as Salinger does for many young men?
9. The Agency is almost a character in the book itself. How would you describe its personality? How important are the particular quirks of the place and of her boss to Rakoff’s development during this year?
10. Rakoff’s memoir is set at the dawn of digital technology. How does her employer’s resistance to using computers and insistence on using outdated Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones contribute to the strangeness of Rakoff’s experience working there? How differently might this story have played out if it had occurred a decade later, when email and the internet were more inescapable?
11. A turning point in the story comes when Rakoff decides to disregard her boss’s instructions to send out a form letter on Salinger’s behalf, and begins answering fans’ letters instead. Was this courageous or recklessly irresponsible? Why do you think she did it? What effect does it have on her?
12. What do the letters that Rakoff writes to Salinger’s adoring fans show us about her? To what extent is she writing them for herself?
13. J. D. Salinger was famously reclusive. What did you know about him before reading this book, and did any of his cameo appearances in the book change your image of him?
14. What sort of influence does Rakoff’s boyfriend have on her during this period of her life? What relationship do his literary ambitions have to her own? To what extent is finding her voice connected with breaking away from him?
15. What does it mean to Rakoff when Salinger dies? After reading the memoir, how would you explain her decision to entitle it My Salinger Year?