My Salinger Year is an understated yet spellbinding novel set in New York over 1996. It describes the year in which a young woman spent working at a literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger. The poignant memoir plays out by aligning itself with the experiences of a young drop-out grad student named Joanna Rakoff, who is starting a job at a literary agency. She is so unfamiliar with the literary world, in spite of her English degree, that she is unsure what the literary agency actually does for its clients, and the novelty of this world allows her to convey her observations with a sense of discovery that only her youth and seemingly endless perceptiveness could convey.
As someone who has never read Salinger, Rakoff seems to at first underestimate the esteem with which the mysterious and unpredictable writer of classics such as Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, known as only ‘Jerry’ is held within the literary agency. However, she inevitably becomes caught up in the world of both the literary agency and the incredibly varied fans of Salinger, whose letters she is employed to read individually and provide a generic response to saying that Salinger does not wish to engage with his fans. Inevitably, however, she finds herself unable to provide such a response to the letters and begins to develop a relationship with the readers of Salinger’s books as individuals. She, as a budding author herself, develops a close connection with the diverse readers of Salinger and realises the deep emotional connection made between a reader and the author of a book which transformed their world.
This book is not, however, just a love letter to Salinger; indeed this is not where the success of the memoir lies. It paints a beautiful picture of a waning culture in which the written word is elevated above all else and authors such as Salinger were treated with a quaint, individualised dignity. The memoir is also a fascinating take on the coming-of-age story, depicting a young woman realising she needs to take control of her own life and stop having it controlled by others. Even though she has never had her ‘Salinger’ moment and considers herself to be too old to now, being two years older than the given age range for reading Salinger. It is perhaps most important that Rakoff has not yet had her ‘Salinger moment’ – if she had done, the reader might be experiencing a rather different tale, with a Rakoff less objective and unguardedly funny than the one we enjoy in A Salinger Year.
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