I was attracted to Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year because it is a book about books (my genre kryptonite!) and it is set in New York City (always a plus.) I knew it had gotten good reviews, and that it portrayed the publishing world in the late 1990s. I obviously knew it involved J.D. Salinger in some way, but this wasn’t necessarily a draw for me, as I’ve only read one of his works. What I didn’t know was that it would be so damn good.
The memoir details a year Rakoff spent working for The Agency (unnamed, but obviously venerable, as it represented writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.) While other literary agencies are well into the digital age, The Agency operates almost out of time: typewriters and dictaphones are used instead of computers, people smoke in the office. A young woman, fresh out of a long-term relationship and grad school in England, Rakoff falls into the position of assistant to one of the senior agents, a woman with a reputation of being somewhat difficult. Essentially a secretary, Rakoff is assigned the duty of responding to Mr. Salinger’s voluminous fan mail – with a formal response letter. But as she reads the letters, from all ages, teenagers and World War II veterans alike, she takes the liberty of responding with more personal kindness or advice. She’s also not supposed to have much contact with Salinger, but as her boss suffers a personal setback, she is forced to engage on a more meaningful level, forming a deeper understanding of the author and his work.
This book is only partly about Salinger and The Agency, though. It’s also a coming-of-age story, about dingy, freezing apartments, awful, pretentious boyfriends, having no money for lunch, having to face paying back student loans, growing apart from former best friends. Rakoff writes with such grace about ordinary moments, vividly capturing what it was like to be young and broke in the City. Take this passage, where she rashly spends money she shouldn’t part with on a sandwich.
I walked directly and purposely to the elegant food shop on Forty-Ninth from which the agents obtained their lunches. Around me, the Masters of the Universe ordered frisee salads, rubbing elbows with their female counterparts, thin tanned women with Cartier bangles dangling from their thin, tanned wrists. The sandwiches sat like pastries on silver cake stands. After much deliberation, I chose a slender flat of bread with some sort of pink cured meat. At the register, I grabbed a chocolate cookie, ordered a coffee, and handed over a crisp twenty. I was not, at that exact moment, overdrawn, but my heart still sped up as I placed my meager change in my wallet. Sandwich in hand, I walked over to Fifth, sat down on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the tourists, and took a bite, a dense, salt, oily bite. It was, there was no doubt, the most delicious sandwich I’d ever tasted. I ate half, planning to save the remainder for the next day, then went ahead and devoured that too.
I loved this book. I love the cover, with its vertical title on the spine (we learn in the memoir that Salinger apparently liked that style.) I love that it’s a memoir that read likes a novel. I love that it evokes nostalgia for the late 1990’s, before cell phones and tablets and social media took over our lives. I love that it makes me want to read everything that J.D. Salinger has ever written, when before I was content with my one high school reading of Catcher in the Rye. Most of all I loved Rakoff’s voice, so elegant yet so compelling, the wistful tone, the portrait of a young woman finding her voice and her strength.